Southwrite

Telling stories

Don’t Believe Everything You Read – Even if it’s True

Posted by southwrite on June 25, 2014

1319095_90422633You know you’re not supposed to believe everything you read – whether in newspapers, books and especially on the Web. Yet, most people – including those who give you advice like this – often do.

You probably heard the story of three-year-old Victoria Wilcher, who was thrown out of a KFC restaurant in Jackson, Miss. after an employee decided that her scars—leftover from an attack by her grandfather’s pit bulls—were scaring customers. That angered a lot of people and you could hear the explosion on social media. And, rightly so. It was so bad in fact that KFC immediately apologized for its franchisee’s behavior and ponied up $30,000 for the child’s medical bills as a way of saying we’re sorry for this outrage.

As you also now know, it was all a media savvy hoax cooked up the grandfather and his girlfriend to boost thier  own fund raising campaign for the girl’s medical bills. This nationally reported story was uncovered not by the national media – which like KFC bought it completely – but by a local newspaper – The Laurel Leader-Call. It did the fact checking and basic reporting while everybody else was running with a tale that was too good to pass up.

I mention this incident not because it’s unusual, but because it’s so commonplace. There have always been hoaxes and frauds and misinformation. What’s different today is how fast these stories travel and how they can impact people and even corporations. KFC acted fast to contain what initially looked like a social media-fueled PR disaster. No doubt their publicity experts understood that it didn’t really matter whether it was true or not – everyone was going to believe it.

This particular story was corrected pretty quickly, but there are countless others that never get corrected. Tune into the cable news shows on any particular night and you will be treated to a veritable smörgåsbord of half-truths, misinterpretations and outright lies. Most of these tales are never corrected and even if they are most viewers continue to believe them. [A small, but stubborn percentage of the American population still believes that President Obama is a Muslim born outside the U.S. even after release of the birth certificate and considerable investigation and evidence to the contrary.]  Some of this is politically motivated lying, some is willful ignorance and the rest is…well…ignorance.

With many stories it can be hard to know the real truth – even if you’re not in the low information voter category. Consider the recent New York Times story about how the student debt crisis really isn’t a crisis at all.  It offers a Brookings Institution study that only seven percent of young adults with student debt owe $50,000 or more. In a classic case of making numbers mean whatever you want them to mean, it turns out this story too is not exactly what it seems.

Screen-Shot-2014-06-24-at-9_21_22-AM-e1403616118133The seven percent figure is correct for the skewed selection of households surveyed. You have to read the caveat closely to get that fact however. It is in fact “based on households with people between 20 to 40 years old with at least some education debt.” Gawker’s Choire Sicha explains it this way:

Those aren’t households with people between 20 and 40; those are households headed by people between 20 and 40. Which is to say, this data excludes all people living in households headed by, say, their parents, or other adults. The way Brookings put this is: “households led by adults between the ages of 20 and 40.” Just another way to say it excludes all households led by anyone over 40! (Those households might be identical in student debt to “young” households! Or they might not? WHO KNOWS!)

I suspect most readers of the story walked away thinking the student debt was no big deal. Yes, even the well-respected New York Times gets its wrong. [If you doubt it just repeat to yourself Judith Miller.]

Both of these examples – and there are many, many more – point to a need for a healthy dose of skepticism of many of the stories you come across every day. It’s good to check multiple sources, but sometimes it can seem that everyone is wrong as with the KFC story. Then you have to ask yourself just how plausible the story really is and extend that skepticism even to those stories that reinforce your own preconceived beliefs. Make that especially then.

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One Response to “Don’t Believe Everything You Read – Even if it’s True”

  1. A timely reminder to check the facts! Thank you.

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