Authors and journalists make mistakes like everyone else. Sometimes a media outlet has to add a correction to an article. Sometimes they have to retract an article. Sometimes they should retract an error-riddled article.
At the end of July, The Washington Post published an article titled: “Black families once lived off their southern farmland. Their descendants are struggling to hold onto it.” The article was written by freelance “food writer” Korsha Wilson who, according to The Washingtonian, also has written for The New York Times, Bon Appetit, and other well-known culinary magazines.
The article seemed simple enough; about black farmers struggling to keep the land passed down from generation to generation. Yet the article now has a massive list of corrections at the top of the piece.
“Corrections: A previous version of this article contained many errors and omitted context and allegations important to understanding two families’ stories. This version has been updated,” the Post wrote at the top of the article.
Wilson apparently failed to get basic facts correct in the article, like the names of people and places, dates, and important context surrounding some details. For example, Wilson spelled Emanuel Freeman Sr.’s first name wrong in the initial article and how many children he had with his second wife. Wilson misreported the dates that the partition sale of Freeman’s estate took place and how many acres were involved in the sale, as well as the date that a member of another family died and when that family purchased property. Wilson even got the name of a proposed law wrong — though only slightly — but went on to misstate what the law proposed.
Washington Examiner columnist Becket Adams wrote that it was “painful reading all the corrections” to the article, “But one cannot help but stare at a train wreck.”
One has to wonder how the article made it through the “Democracy Dies in Darkness’” editing process.
The Post provided a statement to both the Examiner and the Washingtonian that read: “We are embarrassed by the widespread errors in this freelance article. We have published a detailed correction of each error and updated the story based on re-reporting by Post staff.”
The Washingtonian asked how the Post article “went through and whether it was representative of how the Post handles contributions from freelancers whose training and propensity with regard to accuracy can be difficult to judge.”
Adams added that it “would be worth knowing how this happened, and how the paper plans to prevent it from happening again.”
Below is the full list of corrections:
Corrections: A previous version of this article contained many errors and omitted context and allegations important to understanding two families’ stories. This version has been updated.
• The first name of Emanuel Freeman Sr. was misspelled.
• Contrary to what was reported in the initial article, Freeman Sr.’s grandson, Johnny, did not refuse to move off a Halifax, Va., sidewalk for a white woman; he was talking to her, which drew the ire of some white locals, including the Ku Klux Klan. When a crowd gathered at the Freeman home where Johnny fled, gunfire was exchanged, and one family member’s home was set ablaze.
• The 2017 U.S. Agricultural Census compared farmland owned and operated, not simply owned, by white and black farmers.
• The number of children Freeman had with his second wife, Rebecca, was eight, not 10.
• Ownership of Freeman’s property was not transferred to heirs when Rebecca died. In fact, he used a trust before he died to divide his property among his heirs.
• The partition sale of the Freeman estate was in 2016, not 2018, and it included 360 acres of the original 1,000, not 30 acres of the original 99.
• The story omitted key details that affect understanding of ownership of the land. Melinda J.G. Hyman says “Jr.” and “Sr.” were left off the names of father and son on documents, and the land was mistakenly combined under Rebecca’s name, meaning some descendants did not receive proper ownership. After requesting a summary of the property, Hyman says, she found her great-aunt, Pinkie Freeman Logan, was the rightful heir to hundreds of acres, but they were not properly transferred to her. In 2016, Hyman says, 360 acres of the original 1,000 were auctioned off after a lengthy court battle, a decision she says she and some other family members dispute.
• The article omitted Hyman’s statement that actions by law firm Bagwell & Bagwell constitute apparent conflicts of interest and omitted firm owner George H. Bagwell’s response denying that allegation.
• A description by agricultural lawyer Jillian Hishaw of laws governing who inherits property when a landowner dies was a reference to the laws in most states, not more than 20 states. She was also generally describing these laws, not referring to Virginia law.
• A study the article said compared the prevalence of estate planning by older white and older black Americans was published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, not the National Library of Medicine, and was about possession of advance health directives, not estate planning.
• Tashi Terry said, “Welcome to Belle Terry Lane,” not “Welcome to Belle Terry Farm.” The property is named Terry Farm.
• Aubrey Terry did not buy 170 acres with his siblings in 1963; his parents bought the 150-acre property in 1961.
• The eldest Terry brother died in 2011, not 2015.
• The article omitted Tashi Terry’s account of some incidents that led to a lawsuit seeking a partition sale of her family’s farm and her allegations against Bagwell & Bagwell, which the firm denies.
• A law proposed to protect heirs from losing land in partition sales is called the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, not the Partition of Heirs Property Act. “Tenants in common” are not solely defined as those living on a property; they are all those who own a share in the property. The act would not require heirs living on a property to come to an agreement before it can be sold, but would instead provide several other protections.