When Newspaper Editors Fail to Edit, Harm Can Result

Don’t believe everything you read, because there’s a lot of bad advice out there. Writers make mistakes. Editors don’t catch them all. And sometimes when mistakes are pointed out, nothing happens.

An editor looks at a pair of computer monitors and ponders.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Nobody’s perfect. That’s why authors need editors. Prior to publication, to limit the chance of a newspaper or magazine being sued for defamation or dispensing false information, editors are supposed to carefully read each story. For safety’s sake, if the writer advocates something that sets off alarm bells – or on the surface appears plain nuts – that information should be questioned and vetted.

But unfortunately, editors aren’t perfect either, and sometimes things fall between the cracks, as these two examples of respected publications dispensing dangerously inaccurate advice show.

Dial ‘H’ for Murder: A Medical Directive in the Wrong Hands

Folks across the country who have gone through difficult divorces could not believe what they were reading in a recent weekend edition of one of the nation’s oldest and most respected newspapers.

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This paper’s “Dear Abby” sort of columnist – who is not a lawyer – was asked, “After a long and difficult process of splitting assets, I discovered that my advance medical directive still has my ex-wife as my healthcare proxy. She can decide to keep me alive or disconnect me from life support. Should I find someone else, or, so as to not damage already hurt feelings, just wait a bit?”

So, what does the columnist reply? And remember, he is not a lawyer … but after what he wrote might wind up needing to hire one.

“You should certainly keep your ex-wife as your health care proxy, and not simply out of convenience or a desire to avoid giving offense. It is often better for doctors to not like their patients, as it is difficult to be objective in making decisions for people we are attached to. We make more judicious decisions regarding people we care about less.”

(The columnist attributed that statement about not liking their patients to physician and author Dr. Jerome Groopman, who never said that!)

But this columnist wasn’t finished dishing out wrong and dangerous legal advice:

“In your case, your ex-wife doesn’t care much about you these days. And because of that, should you sustain a serious injury or illness, the odds are in your favor that she will make more rational decisions on your behalf than she would have done during the days when she loved you deeply.

“Even if you do end up getting remarried, keep her as your health care proxy. There is no substitute for the rational coldness that comes from having your ex-wife make decisions for you.”

Furious Response from Readers

The day that column was published, I began receiving emails and phone calls from lawyers, physicians, divorce clients and people just wondering how such dangerous advice could get past the newspaper’s editors. “Giving an angry ex that power invites homicide, and is the reason that in many states it is nullified upon divorce,” every divorce lawyer pointed out.

I emailed the paper’s editor, asking that this dangerous nonsense be corrected. The response? “We’re looking into it.” To date, I’ve seen no clarification in the paper, but the columnist apologized to me personally and on a website that gathers his columns, writing:

“An earlier version of this article said ‘it is often better for doctors not to like their patients,’ but the intended meaning wasn’t that it is better for doctors to dislike their patients. Also, the earlier version incorrectly attributed the statement to doctor and medical writer Jerome Groopman, based on a misinterpretation of his writing.

Neighbor’s Tree Falls on Your Car - Who Pays for the Repairs?

Suppose your neighbor’s tree limb crashes down on your car, or home, causing significant damage or injury. Who is responsible? Who should the car owner/innocent party look to for compensation?

The September 2022 edition of one of our country’s highly regarded consumer advice publications answered that question by quoting a representative of the Insurance Information Institute, telling readers:

"It is [the innocent] driver's responsibility of making a claim under their auto comprehensive insurance.”

Really? Not so fast.

“Although you can make a claim under your car’s comprehensive coverage – if you have it – the information provided by the magazine is inadequate,” says La Jolla, Calif., attorney Evan Walker, whose practice concentrates on personal injury and property damage cases.

“The innocent person should consider whether their neighbor is responsible for what happened due to being on notice of having an unhealthy or not properly maintained tree and failing to remedy the situation. This would form the basis of filing a claim against them. But it is a different story when otherwise healthy trees are uprooted due to storms or ‘Acts of God.’

“If you have reason to suspect a neighbor’s tree is diseased or is in danger of falling, or limbs falling on your property, it is critical to document this through photos, videos and ideally a report from a certified arborist.

“Obviously you want to politely bring this to their attention. Notice is the key to getting their insurance to assume financial responsibility.”

An Insurance Broker Offers His Expert Opinion

"Unfortunately, the story fails to explore facts that would make the tree owner liable for the damage and save the innocent driver from facing a possible increase in insurance premiums,” Los Angeles-based insurance broker Karl Susman observes. In addition to running his own insurance brokerage for over three decades, he serves the Los Angeles County Superior Court as an expert witness on agent and broker standard of care issues.

"While there certainly is no obligation, you may consider – in writing – offering to pay part of the trimming or removal expenses, which would help to establish that the neighbor received actual notice of the danger.

“Liability hinges on notice – proving that the neighbor received notice that the tree or its limbs were at risk of falling,” Susman underscored.

The funny thing is, that the magazine’s current advice goes against what it once said in the past. In an article on Aug. 23, 2008, the same magazine wrote: “If your neighbor knew, or should have known, that the branch was unsound, he or she is guilty of negligence and is thus responsible.”

The Bottom Line

When a newspaper columnist who is not a lawyer is permitted to hand out legal advice that has not been run by a lawyer who deals with those types of cases, readers run a huge risk in taking that advice.

If the editors involved in these two examples had merely Googled the question, dozens of articles – written by attorneys – would have popped up.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."