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Island of Doubt: How to watch out for fish stories, on land or water

Island of Doubt: How to watch out for fish stories, on land or water

Picture of William Heisel
[Photo by Derek Lee via Flickr.]
This man's catch grew considerably in size during each subsequent retelling.

You’re not gonna believe this.

The number of times that phrase is said in many different forms in many different languages must have a very high correlation to the number of falsehoods that follow shortly thereafter.

Paying attention to the language that people use when they are relating something that ostensibly happened to them is one of the best techniques you can use for “catching and releasing” fish stories.

You know what a fish story is, right? Perhaps being from Montana makes me highly attuned to stories people tell to make something more interesting than it actually was. This could be an exaggeration of scale — like the size of the fish the person caught — or an embellishment to make the person appear more heroic — like having to fight to drag a monster fish into a tiny boat that was leaking and miles from the shore. Reporters, like everyone else, fall for fish stories because there is often so much fun in the telling. They get caught up in the joy of the story and want to share that joy with their audiences.

And in many cases, it may not matter all that much because the story itself is of little consequence. But in a health story, be it about a new therapy or about an emerging threat or about a controversy in the local health system, often the stakes are high. What you write has bigger implications for health policy decisions, for the massive amount of money spent on health care and health research, and for how people perceive their own health challenges and the options available to address them.

That’s why you need to listen carefully for fish stories.

Pay attention to the setup phrase. Phrases like “You’re not gonna believe this” are a good starting point. Another one is, “I know this is going to sound crazy.” Mark those in your notebook and make sure you take extra care to fact check whatever anecdote was shared next.

Mark the calendar. Oftentimes when someone is getting ready to fib, they start with a vague timeline. “Ages ago” or “100 years ago” or “At a different time in my life” — all can be segues into fantasyland. That’s when you ask, “When exactly was that? And where were you at the time?” Just asking those two questions often prompts the person to either correct what they said on the spot or give you enough additional information to prove or disprove the story later.

Remember that dead men tell no tales. That’s not just another global blockbuster for Johnny Depp, it’s a useful reminder for everyone doing an interview. Why? Because people often tell stories that are impossible to verify, especially when all of the major players are dead — their parents, or their grandparents, or their uncle. Perhaps it was a childhood friend who was tragically killed.

Lastly, pause to ask yourself if this is too good to be true. Speaking of blockbusters, if it sounds like something that would happen in a movie, it probably didn’t happen that way in real life. Think about your own life. It has interesting moments, of course. Your daughter swam a better than expected back stroke in her first swim meet, and you cheered your heart out. But she came in third, not first. And she didn’t break a city record and have Michael Phelps hand her a towel at the end of the competition. You had some complications around the birth of your son, but you weren’t rushed to the hospital in an ambulance followed by another ambulance carrying your husband because he thought he was having a heart attack at the same time, only to find out that the doctor who treated you both was the personal physician for the King of Jordan. 

The main lesson is that many of us want to be more interesting versions of ourselves. And some of us can’t help but telling fish stories as a result. Your job is to catch them and release them before they are published.

[Photo by Derek Lee via Flickr.]


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