What to Do When Fake News is About You

Fake news. It’s a buzzword that excites people all over the political spectrum. But there’s one thing we’ve seen in our practice that hasn’t received attention: What do you do when fake news is about you (or your client)?

We routinely represent clients who, after living relatively unassuming and private lives, find themselves in the middle of high-profile debates, often as pawns in greater political games. With practice areas including white-collar defense and Congressional investigations, we inevitably come across headlines criticizing our clients that we can’t keep out of the news. But what about when news reports are demonstrably false? Then what do you do?

Imagine this: Your client is a Congressional staffer who has been working on the Hill for fifteen years. He has managed to stay out of the limelight; a Google search of his name shows his LinkedIn page, his salary history on LegiStorm, and some small-town acoustic guitarist who happens to share his name.

Then one day, all that changes. Your client is erroneously called out by his Congressman’s political opponent as being part of the anti-vaccination movement. Your client tells you he was photographed at an event next to someone who, unbeknownst to him at the time, is an anti-vaxer. Your client has three kids, and they have all been vaccinated. He has the records to prove it.

News outlets pick up on the story and report that your client is an anti-vaxer. What do you do when the fake news is about your client? Do you try to correct the story and risk drawing even more unwanted attention?  Or do you let the story run its course?

Here are some questions to ask when deciding whether to try to correct the story:

    1. Where in its news cycle is the story?

If you can catch the reporting error in real time, while the story is just starting to hit the news cycle, you should probably try to correct it. It can be difficult to get on top of the story that quickly, but we’ve done it before and found that the earlier you can jump on it, the easier it is to control and correct.

If you are considering correcting the story at the tail end of its news cycle (or when the story is no longer in the news cycle at all), you face the risk of reigniting the story. If the anti-vaxer story ended months ago and your client hasn’t been in the news since then, you should think about whether it’s in your client’s interest to bring up the story, once again landing your client’s name next to “anti-vaxer” in a headline.

    1. What is the relevance of the story to your client’s case?

If your client hired you to represent him in an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment in his office then his stance on vaccinations probably isn’t relevant. Fighting a battle to correct the story might draw more attention to your client than is helpful for his case. But if he hired you to represent him in an investigation at his child’s elementary school into fraudulent vaccination records, then the anti-vax story is probably one you want to correct.

    1. Who needs to be corrected—the journalist or the source?

If an article states that your client is an anti-vaxer there’s a good chance the journalist will want to correct the story if you have evidence that the reporting is wrong. But if the article states that the Congressional political opponent labeled your client an anti-vaxer it’s less likely the journalist will correct the story. That’s because the journalist isn’t wrong—it’s the source who is wrong.

    1. How widely read is the news outlet?

You also want to consider the news outlet itself. Reputability certainly matters, but even more important is how widely circulated the article is. If one rogue website picks up the story and then doesn’t gather more steam, it may not be as important to correct than if a popular news outlet picks up the story.

While it might be nice if we or our clients could tweet “Fake News!” to millions of Americans to set the record straight, that’s not an effective option for us. Instead, we’ve had to make fast but measured judgment calls—and be incredibly persistent with news outlets—to make that happen.

June 25, 2019