For most writers a day comes when someone seriously disagrees with what you’ve written. I had my inaugural experience with this in the first year of my freelance business. I’d done an assignment for a daily newspaper. The topic wasn’t even controversial—the story was a profile of a man who built custom beds with ornate carving on the posts. Imagine my surprise when a few weeks after the story ran, a letter arrived. In difficult to read handwriting, the letter writer assailed me for not writing about his own expertise in custom bed design. Problem was I had no idea the man even existed and apparently nor did my editor. Who knew custom bed design could be controversial?
Kay B. Day
I’ve experienced similar attacks—responsive emails and comments beneath articles—over the years. Sometimes I respond; sometimes I don’t. It depends on the circumstances.
If the negative comments come from the type of poster popularly called a “troll,” I try to ignore them. Trolls are there to agitate. The more you respond the more the troll fans the flames. This is especially popular on political Web sites where people tend to call each other names in cyberspace they’d probably never level at someone in person. Then there are the flame wars. These attacks spread from site to site and can even be picked up by established media. When I think of flame wars, I think of the Mac vs. PC battles that sometimes heat up. Reading these verbal exchanges can be as entertaining as a sitcom.
Probably the most notable is the long-running series of exchanges about game developer Derek Smart—the ‘Great Flame War of 1999’—that endures even today. Smart responded formally to criticisms and countless ad hominem attacks in an editorial at a popular gaming site.I’ve also known writers personally who became caught up in attacks they never envisioned. An article is published and soon thereafter someone makes a cause out of you. That cause spreads to blogs and message boards and truth becomes secondary to gossip. It’s like that game children sometimes play where one child whispers a secret into another’s ear and the secret passes along a group. By the time the last person hears the message, the facts have changed considerably.
The speed and breadth of the Web makes such situations even more worrisome. Even if a retraction is made there will still be pages on blogs and corporate media Web sites that don’t make corrections. Wikipedia is notorious for this, leading to the disclaimer you sometimes see at the top of the page: “The neutrality of this article is disputed.”What can you do if you believe someone is personally attacking you?
I believe it’s best to ignore it as long as the insults don’t affect your job or profession. But sometimes it’s impossible to ignore.In those cases you can start by issuing a clear statement of the facts as you see them. If you have a blog, that makes it easy because you can post your statement there. If not you can try sending your statement as a letter to the editor of a newspaper, magazine or Web site—politicians often do this.
You may also opt to take the antique approach—send a letter by snail mail to your accuser if it’s possible for you to obtain a street address. Or you can send it by email if the information is available.If incorrect information makes it into a Wikipedia entry, you can try editing there. But there’s no guarantee your edits will be left in place because in my opinion, Wikipedia is by nature fairly ungovernable.
You may also try writing the company that hosts the individual’s Web site. That’s fairly easy to determine by looking up the domain information online.
Another tactic is to turn the negative into a positive. You can design a publicity effort around negative circumstances—issue press releases, place comments on related message boards, run some low cost ads on Web sites and do talk show appearances with online radio hosts and local program hosts. Those appearances can usually be easily arranged and they will have an effect despite the fact your story may not be told by one of the major morning or drive-time show hosts.But that publicity effort is tricky—the person who is attacking you can do the same and even capitalize on your successes by piggybacking his own agenda.
If the exchanges have occurred in a forum, you can send a message to the moderator. If you can prove you’ve been defamed, you can seek an attorney. For most of us this option is not only too time-consuming, it is also cost-prohibitive.
What’s most important is that the writer refrain from internalizing all that negativity. Just because someone hurls an accusation, that doesn’t make it true. Chances are you will never have to meet the person who’s decided to throw the glove down in front of you. It’s not likely to change opinions held by those who really care about you and are important to you.There’s a lot of wisdom in walking away from a battle unless it’s absolutely necessary to fight. Of all the options we can weigh, that one costs less than the others in terms of money and peace of mind.