Never let the truth get in the way of a good story…?

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I have a tendency to stretch the truth when I tell a story, and it drives my husband crazy. My brother throws a slice of pizza, and it hits the wall. By the time I tell it, the pizza makes a perfect, beautiful arc, spinning several times in the air before sticking to the wall, leaving a perfect triangular sauce imprint, and then delicately falling to the ground. Ethan corrects me every time, telling me I can’t just change the facts for a good story.

And I think, “But that’s what makes the story worth telling!” I mean, which is more fun to read? A descriptive narrative of what (may have) happened, or the sentence, “So my brother threw some pizza against the wall the other day”?

Having said that, there’s a line to draw. I sincerely hope I would never stretch this story so far as to say that the pizza shattered the window, flew into the street, and killed a man who was outside protesting cruelty against baby seals. That’s ridiculous. The first story has an artistic bias: mine. The second story is blatantly false.

One of my husband’s coworkers was recently asked to find another job. Based on his rambling blog post about it, several news stations immediately picked up the story, and now there are headlines all over the place talking about how this man was fired for explaining homophones on a grammar website. This poor victim was fired because his boss – who owns a school that teaches English grammar – thought that the word “homophone” implied homosexuality, and he didn’t want his school to represent a gay lifestyle.

Of course, that’s not what actually happened. But that’s what the news reports. Because “Man Fired For Doing His Job Poorly” doesn’t go viral very quickly.

I’m not here to harp on “homophonia.” I’m just here to point something out. I have a degree in History. I spent years studying the way stories are told, and I’m here to gently remind you that everything you will ever hear has gone through a filter: somebody wrote it down. And that person usually wasn’t God – so there’s a bias. If you read my blog, my stories might be a little more spectacular than in real life. If you read the Salt Lake Tribune, it will probably be liberal, and it might be anti-Mormon, depending on the reporter. If you read the Deseret News, it will probably be conservative, and pro-Mormon, since it’s a Mormon newspaper. If you read the Pope’s twitter feed, please expect to hear some things about God, the Bible, and Christianity in general. Duh.

My concern is that I see an increasing trend on social media to read the headlines – and nothing else. My major taught me to read the author’s name and the sponsor who pays for the message before I even read the headline. That’s how I determine the bias. If the author works for Gatorade, don’t be surprised when all the “studies” show that Gatorade is the best energy drink out there. Gatorade wouldn’t pay to publish anything else. As a historian, I worry when I see people spread inspiring quotes about cell phone etiquette and attribute them to Abraham Lincoln. I worry when news headlines I know are false start going viral and nobody questions the one-sided reporting. I’m especially concerned when people attribute “genuine” quotes to such religious leaders as Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and even Jesus – religious leaders who, conveniently enough, are not actually on social media, and cannot defend the use of these statements.

I’m not telling you to stop sharing inspiring quotes. But please, people – if you’ve never read the Bible, don’t assume you know what Jesus said. If you haven’t studied Dr. King, don’t tell me what he would have done in this situation. If you haven’t read more than one viewpoint, don’t assume the news is handing you facts on a silver platter. Do some research before you throw yourself behind a statement or cause. It might take a little longer for that quote to go viral, but at least you’ll know it’s not a hoax. ♦

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