I recently wrote about Hattie May Wiatt, a little girl from the 1800s whose gift of 57 cents inspired the building of a large church, a hospital, and a university. Someone had emailed Hattie's story to me, and when I read it, I assumed it was a hoax. Amazingly to me--except for a few details apparently added to make the story sound flashier--Hattie's story is true.
Sadly, there are a lot of hoaxes on the Internet that were created to get Christians hot under the collar. An evangelical publication recently fell for one of them, printing a story that Pepsi had designed a soda can with most of the Pledge of Allegiance written on it, minus the words "under God." The publication printed a retraction.
Unfortunately, this isn't the first time a hoax was printed by a reputable source. There was widespread concern a few years back that Harry Potter books had caused an increase in Satanism. Several publications wrote stories about it, then found out this rumor started from a parody piece in The Onion, a satirical newspaper.
The Evangelical Press Association sent me a list of tips for journalists on how to check the validity of a story. I think the following are great tips for any reader. Before you forward that shocking email about a scandal that could rock the church, try this:
1) If the story sounds "too good to be true," it probably is. Be skeptical and required proof.
2) Check with popular urban legend Web sites to see if your story has already been investigated and proven false. Here are two good sites:
If nothing is listed on those sites, next you can:
3) Do your own reporting and find independent verification of the story. In the case of the Pepsi story, a sample of the Pepsi can in question would have been a good piece of evidence. (Hint: a second copy of the same bogus email promoting the story doesn't count as independent verification.)
4) Make a solid effort to contact the supposedly guilty party. In this case, a member of Pepsi's army of PR folks would probably have been happy to set the record straight. Most big companies are happy to head off negative publicity before it's printed.
This is something anyone can--and should--do before forwarding an email of concern. Most manufacturers and organizations have online comment forms where you can instantly send your questions and concerns. It's much better to wait a few days to get verification than to forward an email and get a ton of angry replies from your friends saying, "This is just an urban legend!" Or worse, you might freak someone out over a hoax.
Nearly a decade ago, a well-intentioned friend sent me an email warning that AIDS-infected blood was being injected into people at movie theaters while they viewed the film. For years, I felt stressed out every time I'd go to a cinema. I was thrilled to find Snopes.com says, "It just aint so."
In an age when news travels as fast as the click of the "Send" button, everyone is like a journalist. You may not have the reputation or audience of Barbara Walters, but you do have the deep trust of your family and friends.