The adage “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is” is a key lesson journalists learn early on, and the best ones don’t ever forget it. The more you want that dramatic-but-unverified story to be true, the more you need to verify it. Good journalists go above and beyond to get the story right the first time and to avoid becoming the victim of a hoax. They’re good rules. And they’re rules that don’t apply on social media, where everybody has a place to tell their own side of the story — even when they might be making it up.
A New Jersey waitress made news when she posted a receipt purporting to show that one of her customers left a note instead of a tip, saying he wouldn’t support her lifestyle. The woman, who is a lesbian and a military veteran, won national support. People who were outraged on her behalf sent her cash along with an outpouring of kind words. Then the patron spoke up, saying he recognized the receipt, which had been doctored with the message. He had never written the note, he said, and he had tipped the server.
The restaurant didn’t publicly side with either the waitress or the customer, but the server was fired last week, and there’s been some debate about whether she should have to pay back the cash, which she had vowed to donate to the Wounded Warriors project.
Both the original story and the subsequent revelation of the apparent hoax fueled a storm of coverage, both in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere, and it wasn’t the media that ultimately debunked the hoax.
It’s not the first such hoax we’ve seen in recent years. Turns out it’s pretty easy to doctor the tip line on a receipt with photoshop and post it for all the world to see, whatever the motive. Last year, outlets including Smoking Gun reported on another receipt posted on a now-defunct blog, along with a story that a rich banker type had left his Newport Beach, Calif., waitress a 1% tip and the advice to “get a real job.” That story was debunked fairly quickly after the picture went viral and the restaurant in question produced a file copy of the actual receipt, which showed a generous 20% tip.
CNN dubbed 2013 the “Year of the Web Hoax,” in an article earlier this month that posits these fake stories abound even as we grow wise to them because, well, we love the drama of stories that are too good to be true. “Sometimes, with these stories, we all want them to be true,” said CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter. “And we forget, maybe, the first rule — trust, but verify. Check it out first.”
One of the more heartwarming tales to go viral in recent weeks isn’t a hoax but a bit of a mystery. Media outlets and blogs have been ripe with stories about an anonymous restaurant guest who leaves thousands of dollars in tips on an account called “Tips for Jesus.” Eater ran a Q-and-A last week with the tipper or tippers, while maintaining their anonymity.
Have any of your restaurant’s receipts, doctored or otherwise gone viral? Have any of your servers received astoundingly big tips? Tell us about it in the comments.