Please, Please, Please Stop Reporting on Viral Receipt Stories

(Source: Facebook)
July 24, 2018

A good rule of thumb is that if you read a story on the Internet and it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Too often many journalists operate on another standard: If you read a story on the Internet and it seems too good to be true, eh, just run with it.

Most recently, outlets as varied as the Washington PostUSA TodayHuffPothe Dallas Morning News, Associated Press, Fox News, and CBS News, all reported on a Facebook post from Odessa, Texas, waiter named Khalil Cavill. The 20-year-old posted a picture of a receipt he received while working at Saltgrass Steak House in which his first name was circled and "We don't tip terrorist" was written next to it. Cavill is Christian, but wrote that he was "sick to my stomach" and said he was sharing it "because I want people to understand that this is racism, and this hatred still exists."

The restaurant stood up for Cavill and banned the customer, earning applause from Muslim civil rights organizations like CAIR. But less than a week later, Cavill admitted that he forged the racist note. Cavill was fired, and Saltgrass Steak House apologized to the customer and invited him back for a free meal.

That reminded me of a November 2013 story, in which a gay server at Gallop Asian Bistro in Bridgewater, New Jersey, posted a picture of a receipt in which a couple had not tipped and left the message, "I’m sorry but I cannot tip because I do not agree with your lifestyle." That turned out to be fake; the couple contacted NBC New York and provided the actual receipt, in which they tipped 20% and left no note.

And of course there was the time last year that a Virginia man didn't tip on his meal and left a note on the receipt reading "great service don't tip Black people." The NAACP got involved in that one. But then the man's lawyer came forward and said it was a hoax; he actually tipped a penny and left a note reading "terrible service." Indeed, the image of the receipt posted online by the NAACP indicated that it was a reprint, printed hours after the time of the incident.

Or that time in 2013 when a black waitress at a Tennessee Red Lobster posted a receipt online showing she got a tip reading just "none n****r." After getting $10,000 in sympathetic donations, she was sued by the customer. The man acknowledged leaving a tip reading "none" because it was a takeout order, but he said he never left the racial slur, a claim backed up by a handwriting expert. Another handwriting expert said that the racial slur matched a handwriting sample of the waitress "within a reasonable degree of certainty."

And then there was the rich banker who, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street, left a 1% tip (get it?) and a note reading "Get a real job." Yeah, that was a hoax. He actually left a 20% tip, and no note.

I think you get the pattern.

Those are just the verified hoaxes I could remember off the top of my head. And that's not even counting the receipts where the veracity was never proven one way or the other, but journalists ran with them anyway.

Maaaaybe a couple left a note on a receipt at a San Antonio restaurant reading, "The food was tasty and the service was attentive. However the owner is Mexican. We will not return. America first," but one wonders why they still live in a city that's 64% Hispanic. Maaaaybe someone left "stop eating b*itch!" on a one-person, $30 tab at a freaking Applebee's. Maaaaybe a note left on a Kansas receipt really did segue seamlessly from "Thank you for your service, it was excellent" and "it is never too late for GOD’S love" to "but none shall be spared for f*gs."

But there's never been any corroborating evidence presented in any of those cases, and the notes always seem closer to what someone thinks their oppressors sounds like. Oddly, they often make sure to compliment the service of the person they supposedly hate (much like the "great service don't tip Black people" hoax). Are there really so many polite bigots out there writing notes in a way that put their victims beyond reproach? Or does that sound more like something a self-vindicating hoaxer would write?

It is laughably easy to fake a handwritten note on a receipt. The upsides are high-- attention, social media boost, fifteen minutes of fame, crowdsourced donations, and all the other benefits of having your victimhood officially corroborated. The downsides are low if you avoid naming the customer-- at worst you get fired from a low-level job you already obviously despise. And yet time and time again the media elevate these claims, often with little to no skepticism (the original Washington Post headline on the "terrorist" note stated without hedging that "Texas restaurant bans customer who left racist note to waiter").

There are of course receipt stories that turn out to be true. A waiter really did call his customers the n-word on their receipt back in 2016. A receipt that went viral among conservatives showing a customer using food stamps to purchase nothing but steaks and lobsters surprisingly turned out to be real (investigators arrested the man for a scheme in which he resold the items at half their value). But when the number of fake incidents begin to eclipse to the number of verified incidents-- and most are impossible to verify one way or the other-- you have to ask why outlets continue to risk misinforming their audience.

That'd be the case even if there was obvious news value to these stories. But there are millions of interactions between servers and customers of all stripes in a given week and virtually none of them end in overt race hatred. Why focus on the fact that one person wrote something Islamaphobic to another person in a state with 28 million people, even if it were true?

The answer of course is that there's a market for stories that confirm our worst suspicions about our fellow Americans. Readers of these stories aren't looking for evidence that some guy is an open bigot. They're looking for evidence that millions of people are secret bigots, people who live in places like Texas, Kansas, Tennessee, small-town New Jersey, etc.

Media outlets that fall for receipt stories don't just misinform their audience, they do so in a way that damages our nation's social cohesion. It's bad enough giving undue focus to true stories that don't represent the reality of race, religion, and sexual orientation in America. But when an entire genre of stories turns out to be a hoax over and over and over, it's time to retire it altogether.