We've often had to counsel people not to believe everything they see in the news. While I do believe that reporters make good-faith efforts to get the facts straight, it's still unavoidably true that wires get crossed and misinformation is occasionally conveyed as truth. Sometimes the stories only get benign details like a name's spelling wrong, but other times it's big things that alter the story entirely.
We recently ran into this issue when skimming over a quick fluff piece about a South Carolina man who was so hungry that he went rogue at a Waffle House. I checked it against another article about the same thing; in both it was presented as a basic human-interest story without any real analysis. That's fine; at its heart it's just meant to be a feel-good story about some shenanigans at a restaurant where the food often tastes like damp cigarettes. Certain details varied between the stories, though, and depending on which one has its facts straight the texture of the tale changes a little. That's why we need to use it to talk about the dangers of taking news stories at face value.
Hungry South Carolina man Alex Bowen related his adventure on Facebook late in the night on November 29. Bowen, mildly intoxicated, wandered into a West Columbia Waffle House looking for a meal. When he walked through the doors, though, he found a lone third-shift employee fast asleep at the counter. It was later suggested that other employees, while on the clock, may have been behind the restaurant taking an extended break.
Realizing he had the run of the place, Bowen took initiative and went behind the counter, firing up the grill himself. According to his story, he slapped together a "double Texas bacon cheesesteak with extra pickles," which to his credit sounds delicious. Once it was finished he turned the grill off, cleaned up his mess, scooped up his snack, and left the restaurant as he had found it--minus a few sandwich ingredients, of course. There he is to the right, snapping selfies as he strolls around the joint. He managed to achieve all this without waking the nearby snoozing employee, who reportedly received a week's suspension after Bowen posted his handiwork on Facebook.
Bowen returned to the restaurant the next day and paid for his sandwich, in case anyone worried about the "petty larceny" implications of this story. Spokespeople for the restaurant responded with good humor regardless; they expressed admiration for his talent on the grill, but also noted that no customers should be behind the counter for safety reasons.
That's pretty much it. Altogether it's easy fodder for soft human-interest journalism, and I found it a welcome break from the sexual harassment revelations and presidential tweets that lately dominate the news.
As often happens when multiple sources report a story, certain details of Bowen's adventure got switched around and mixed up. Given that it's a piece about a steak sandwich, I can understand if readers react to that with "who cares?" However, one of the unclear elements to the story is actually pretty important, and takes it from "feel-good fluff" to "unsettling oversight" pretty quickly.
Bowen admitted he was a little drunk when he entered the Waffle House. That disinhibited state gave him the gumption to ignore the sleeping employee, jump on the grill, and take care of business himself. He mentioned in his Facebook post that he isn't ordinarily the kind of guy who would do things like that, but many of us are likely familiar with the concept of "liquid courage." "I give all the credit to my old friend vodka," Bowen said.
This is where the variations in the news pieces make a difference: Our protagonist drunkenly went to a Waffle House...but how did he get there?
One news source wrote that "In a hungry and slightly drunken stupor, Bowen said he walked to a West Columbia Waffle House early Thursday morning." If so, that was a safe choice and I commend him on his judgment while under the influence (aside from his choice of dining venues). If he was in a nearby bar or just walked from home, more power to him for hoofing it somewhere to satisfy his craving.
However, a different source only says he "went" to Waffle House. I understand that "went" can mean walking just as easily as driving, but here's where it gets a little more complicated (emphasis mine):
"I walked back outside to my car to look for employees," Bowen [said]. "No one in sight."
In his search for assistance he exited the Waffle House and "walked back outside to [his] car." That's supposed to be a direct quote from Bowen about his sandwich odyssey. If it's accurate, that would mean his "old friend vodka" compelled him to get behind the wheel and drive drunk to Waffle House. The whole thing is a little less cute if there's a DUI in the mix somewhere.
Further reading of the (frankly absurd) number of comments left for Bowen on his Facebook post shows that he lives roughly a block from the Waffle House, but it's still unclear if he walked or not. If he drove--even that short of a route--then he broke the law. There's no acceptable distance to drive drunk, so it seems important to know whether or not that happened.
So What's the Takeaway?
My gripe isn't really with Alex Bowen. Nobody got hurt by his antics (except the employee who was penalized for sleeping), and I can't really climb on a high horse about drunk driving without even knowing for sure that he did. The guy's Facebook wall is awash with accolades and congratulations, so for however long he gets to be the Internet's hero, I'm happy he gets the limelight. May the tide of public opinion not turn on him as so often happens nowadays.
If he drove drunk, though, I feel like at least a few of those incoming high-fives should be rethought. Fortune smiled on Bowen repeatedly that night, but it's never wise to bank on luck and it's never permissible to drive over a BAC of .08. I can't even say definitively that he'd had enough to put him past that limit--he was sharp enough to work an unfamiliar grill and rustle up a cheesesteak--but he emphasized he was drunk enough to make unusual decisions, so it's certainly possible.
It would really help if the various news outlets told the same story about the event. While all of them applaud him as some kind of cat-burglar hero for his stealthy sandwich-making, some indicate that he walked to the restaurant and others note his mention of a car. After looking over his Facebook page, it looks like a lot of the material they used was scraped from the comment conversations he had with people in that original post. Perhaps his story altered a little along the way when he realized the DUI implications, but journalists could have gotten in touch with him to determine the truth one way or the other.
In the end this tale is a little less carpe diem and more caveat emptor--buyer beware. I was all set to tear this guy a new one for driving drunk, since none of the news seemed to care about holding him accountable for a dangerous decision that takes thousands of lives a year. Now I'm not sure if that happened, and that's a major detail to get right when reporting.
It's not always goofy stories about sandwiches where important facts get twisted, either. Thanks to the cutthroat competition spurred by the Internet, news sources rush to deliver whatever "facts" they can scrape up without taking the time to verify the information coming to them. It has happened repeatedly with many of the tragic mass killings over the last decade, and most certainly plays a prominent role in our political climate, giving rise to the common refrain of "fake news" made popular by our commander-in-chief. Mistakes happen regularly, and whether one believes that's a big deal in the case of something as harmless as a Waffle House run, it's still an indictment of modern journalism that it seems so comfortable improvising the truth until it knows for sure.