Oh my God. Did you hear? Homeless people are getting their throats slashed. Women are being grabbed in parking garages and sold into human sex trafficking. Children are being grabbed up off the streets. The media isn’t telling you about these things and the police are hiding these terrible stories from you.
More and more this is the sort of thing I see on my social media feeds and it’s almost always bullshit. The difficulty here is that all it takes is one person making something up. Then some well-meaning people share it thinking they’re helping, usually with a ‘Be careful out there’ warning to their fellow social media users.
I’ve been covering Tacoma homicides for over a decade now. Over the years I’ve received countless ‘tips’ about all sorts of horrific and gruesome murders that never happened. I will do my due diligence and contact the police department, the Medical Examiner’s office, and local reporters to see if there is any meat to the rumors, but there rarely is.
It’s gotten to the point where I can spot a lie before I research it. Here are some things to watch out for.
Lack of Detail: Exactly where did this happen? Who was involved? What did they look like? What time was it when it happened? How many perpetrators were there?
Sensationalism: If the story sounds outrageous and there isn’t any media coverage whatsoever of the story, then it’s likely false because the media LOVES outrageous stories. Last week I saw a story about a guy who stole an airplane from Sea-Tac. When it first appeared on social media I was skeptical, but within minutes the story was picked up by mainstream news because a story like that when true is worth covering.
Personal Anecdote (and nothing else): Personal accounts of terrible things are always compelling, but they’re also among the least verifiable forms of evidence. That’s not to say that everyone who tells you something terrible that happened to them is lying. But if there is no other evidence to back up their story, it’s healthy to be at least initially skeptical.
Secondhand Information: Occasionally I’ll get emails from people who will tell me that my depiction of a homicide is inaccurate because they know a guy who was there and… But of course if I ask to talk to that guy, they can’t produce him.
Now it should be noted that in all of these cases it’s possible that the story you’re being told is actually true. Sometimes things happen quickly and it’s hard to give details as to what happened. Sometimes the true story is so sensational it sounds false. Sometimes things happen to you and you have no evidence that they did. Sometimes you hear a story from someone and never talk to them again. This is why it’s good not to just assume that they’re lying to you.
Instead what I suggest is to believe the story until you find reason not to, but not to share the story until you have some sort of corroboration. Multiple sources are good. Confirmation from authorities or experts is better. Physical evidence is even better.
Ask questions. If someone says something happened and they talked to the police, ask for the incident report number. If someone tells you something incredible happened, ask for the source of that information.
Do your own research. If someone has supposedly been killed, ask the Medical Examiner’s office. Contact the police department’s spokesperson. Check various media websites.
Be respectfully skeptical. There’s no reason to call someone a liar until you have evidence that they are one. The truth is occasionally hard to prove. My rule is fairly simple when it comes to sharing information: Trust, but verify. If it can’t be verified, depending on the source I might still believe it, but I’m not going to share it.