Meet Mr. Wrong

In the news biz, a small production error can create a big problem.

It’s the kind of mistake people in the news business dread. The sort of otherwise minor flub that, placed in the wrong context, becomes one of those grab-your-head-in-your-hands kind of mistakes. The type that makes co-workers at the water cooler exclaim “Holy shit!” It’s also the kind of mistake that can cost you money, as the San Francisco Chronicle learned not long ago. Which brings us to the interesting correction that ran on the front of the local section in last Wednesday’s Oakland Tribune.

The lead story in the paper’s Metro section the previous day was headlined “Killer Charged in Fatal Stabbing.” Typical Metro fare, but the side-by-side attacker-and-victim mug shots were unusual. It wasn’t so much that the killer was a middle-aged white guy while his girlfriend/victim was a younger black woman. It was more that the man was smiling, meticulously groomed, and appeared to be wearing a jacket and tie. He looked like a suburban software salesman.

As it turns out, the man in the photo wasn’t convicted killer David Knight, although nobody at the Trib‘s new parent company would say who he actually was, nor whether the paper had heard from him, nor how the mistake happened. Nick Lammers, director of photography for BANG-East Bay, who was not responsible for the mixup, simply called it “unfortunate.” Production editor Al Fields acknowledged it was a production mistake, and referred further questions to managing editor Martin Reynolds, who would not comment.

If the Trib is lucky, its wrong guy will prove understanding. Mistakes happen — god only knows, we make ’em here. But the Chronicle had to shell out for a similar mistake just last year. In February 2006, as part of a prominent series on rogue San Francisco cops, the paper ran a front-page photo of a man identified as an officer with a history of suspensions for excessive force. But the fellow pictured wasn’t a cop. He was Jack Neeley Jr., a then 42-year-old SF taxi driver and part-time security guard.

The Chron corrected its error and apologized, even offering the cabbie compensation, but Neely and his lawyer wanted more. They sued, claiming defamation, libel, and emotional distress. The newspaper settled for an undisclosed amount in June 2006, according to ABC News.

Unforgiving business, this.


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