DennisBeaverDecember 13, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Is it safe to rely on the legal or medical advice we read in newspaper or magazine articles? What if, just what if, the columnist submits an accurate story, but changes or omissions in what’s printed sends a far different message?

Around the end of October, I received a number of e-mails from readers who were annoyed by a legal column they had read in the Los Angeles Times. The following from Hanford resident, Cole, was typical:

“In the L.A. Times October 26th Real Estate section, I came across a brief article on Room-Mate Rent Sharing written by Attorney Janet Portman, who specializes in landlord/tenant law. Her column is syndicated by Inman News. This particular article was of special interest to us because it described a situation identical to one that our son is in right now,” Cole continued.

“He, along with a young married couple, rented a two bedroom condo near Cal State Fresno, where they are all students. Each of them signed the lease and put up one third of the first month’s rent and security deposit. They all agreed to share rental and utility expenses 1/3 each. Then, right before the second month’s rent was due; the couple said that since our son has one bedroom, the rent should be equally divided, not split three ways.”

“Attorney Portman’s article stated, in so many words, if the three room-mates can’t work it out and the young man feels the couple’s stance is unfair, he can always break the lease and move out.”

“We have read your column for years — honestly, it’s the first thing I look for in our paper. I hope your editor keeps this compliment, Dennis, because you’ve earned it. We have kept your articles about the legal complications and long-term consequences of room-mate relationships which often go bad. You made it clear that a good landlord will have each resident sign a rental agreement. In the event of a disagreement among the room-mates, if one simply moves out, this would generally have no effect on his/her continuing duty to pay rent, possibly all of the rent, unless the landlord agreed otherwise,” Cole wrote.

Advice on what can go wrong

“One of the reasons my wife and I like your column is because you set out the facts and law in a complete, and easy to understand manner. Importantly, you caution readers on what can go wrong and recommend speaking with a lawyer.”

“The Times article did not talk about the consequences of that room-mate simply moving out, such as still being liable for all of the rent if the others did not pay, getting sued, credit score issues, trouble getting a job, etc. My hunch is that the original article submitted for publication was cut to pieces by some copy editor who was unaware of just how serious it can be to perform major surgery on a law related column.”

“What if someone followed that advice, moved out and got sued? Can a newspaper be sued for publishing a legal or medical column which gives wrong advice? Could you look into this for us, as I am sure there are a lot of room-mates who read the same Times article and may have gotten a wrong impression of their legal obligations.”

Cole’s hunch was correct

I also read the Times article when it first came out and immediately thought, “Someone did something to this story to really mess it up.” The only way to prove that was to find the original article and compare it to what appeared.

Going onto the Inman New Web site, I found it.

The two articles did not match. The original shown on the Inman News Web site was well-written (as I expected) and covered the important legal points which were left out of the printed version.

So, how does this happen, and what is the message for any newspaper or magazine reader?

“This is disturbing and should never happen,” I was told by Elaine Baker, Syndication Director at Inman News when I discussed these issues with her.

“We require the newspapers who subscribe to our columns use them as received and to not change a word to prevent the exact problem which your reader spotted. Many stories can be edited to save space, but you don’t want to touch a law-related article. It can distort what the author intended, giving a wrong impression. This is where editorial oversight is so important,” she stressed.

“When this article came out, the L.A. Times was going through serious management changes in their Real Estate and Business Sections. Likely, someone just shortened it to save space and who knows if management was aware of what happened. If a story is too long or in some other way needs fine-tuning, the proper thing is for an editor to speak with the columnist, discuss the issues, and re-submit the story. This is especially true with technical areas, such as law,” she stressed.

Practical advice

Newspapers who carry medical or legal columns feel the information is useful to their readers. These tend to be popular with most readers, and, just for a moment, I will take this time to thank the papers who have run my columns, in full all these many years, and especially the editorial staff who call if something seems unclear.

I consider the issues that Cole raised to be important, and illustrate something which should be common sense: If an advice column seems to apply to your situation, always consider seeing a professional, just to be sure.

While it’s likely that somewhere, someplace, a newspaper was sued over an advice column, I researched the question and could not find any cases.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.