Spike Lee Twitter Mistake Raises Issue of "Subject Confusion"

Filmmaker Spike Lee apologized today to a Florida couple for erroneously retweeting their address to his 240,000 Twitter followers. Lee thought he was sharing the address of the "George Zimmerman" who shot and killed Florida teen Trayvon Martin at the end of February.  Instead he was sharing the address of a couple in their seventies whose son's middle name is "George" and last name is "Zimmerman." Here are some steps you can take to avoid what is commonly referred to as "subject confusion":

  1. Determine the number of people with the same name as your research subject living in the area.  You can do this by using Nexis or other databases that contain information drawn from the public portion (i.e., known addresses) of consumer credit files.  Expect that there will be many people with the same name living in the vicinity of your subject.  This is especially true in urban areas.
  2. Match the known identifiers for your subject to the information available in public address records to eliminate false positives.  For example, rule out false matches based on age or past known addresses.
  3. Use other public records as a cross reference -- voter registration is public in many states (check where your subject lives) and phone books are still relevant (if only to rule out subjects, i.e., if your subject is in their 20s they probably aren't the person listed in the phone book under their name.)  If your subject owns property, then use records of property ownership or property tax payments.  If your subject is a licensed professional, check what address they listed on licensing forms.

More on the Lee tweet apology here.