I asked you for help, but your story made me look bad

“My honesty, integrity and character — not to mention my intelligence — is being publicly questioned and attacked,” Suzan French complained after we published a story about her dispute with AT&T. “That is unacceptable.”

In the story, I noted that when our advocates approached AT&T on French’s behalf, AT&T responded that French had not signed up for autopayments of her monthly invoices, and that she would begin receiving the discount once she had done so. Subsequently, French advised us that she had signed up for autopayments.

Fair reporting of the facts

Her version of events might be true, but it is not supported by the paper trail she provided to our advocacy team — and which became the basis of the story.

When consumers ask us for help, our advocates review the paper trails that document their interactions with those companies. Occasionally those trails document errors and inconsistencies between the consumers’ versions of events and the companies’.

A writer’s dilemma

Our writers face a dilemma when writing about these cases. We’ve been accused — with some validity — of bias in favor of consumers who don’t deserve our help. This often happens when our advocates choose to reach out to companies in instances where consumers

  • did not have insurance or warranty coverage,
  • approached the wrong employee of a company for assistance,
  • sent us a paper trail that lacks documentation or otherwise does not support their position,
  • used inappropriate language in correspondence with employees of the company or with us, or
  • requested an unreasonable resolution of their case.
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An advocate’s dilemma

Even in such instances, our advocates may decide to reach out to companies if the paper trail suggests that a consumer is not receiving fair and professional treatment. Often the company’s response will shed further light on the case and provide additional insights into what happened — which our writer will mention in the story.

But when this happens, it makes the consumers we represent look bad. Fair reporting of their cases requires us to point out any consumer errors that contributed to the situations being advocated. And from time to time, those consumers challenge our stories after they are published.

In the instance described above, French had a genuine case against AT&T. But she felt that our story presented the facts in a light that didn’t flatter her. She demanded that we adjust the story to reflect her position, which was not supported by the paper trail we received from her. We added an update to our story to indicate that French’s version of the story differed from the case notes.

Sometimes, though, we won’t do that.

Our fair reporting will continue

If a consumer has not given us a complete and accurate version of his or her case, or the case notes indicate that the consumer behaved egregiously or received reasonable, if unfavorable, treatment from a company, then we’re going to say so. Or, if there were other actions a consumer might have taken to resolve their case or prevent the underlying circumstances, we’ll point that out too. And when those things happen, we’re not going to update the story, regardless of how it makes the consumer look.

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So we urge all consumers seeking our assistance to consider that we will present the bad along with the good when we publish their stories. We have to — because if we don’t, it could make everyone look bad.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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