Every once in a while, I’ll get sent an article that is something so fantastical and bizarre that I’m not so sure I even believe it. This is a very good approach to have when dealing with popular news and morbid topics- don’t believe what you read. Yes, we find evidence of vampire related burial practices- NO, there are not real vampires. Yes, there are some elongated skulls that don’t have a traditional human shape- NO, they are not aliens, they are just humans with cranial modification. But there are really strange morbid things that happen that are real. Remember the story about the guy who drank a mummified toe in a whiskey shot? I do! It really happened! But other stories… maybe not so much.
Let’s look at a recent gem and take the article apart to determine whether it is true or false. Here is the title:
“Nigerian Restaurant Shut Down For Serving Human Meat”
Brilliant, right? Makes you want to click on it, tweet it, send it to your morbid friends. It also includes a great picture of meat right under the title. Yeah, baby. This is going to be good.
So what is the next line…
“This post contains content that some readers may find disturbing.”
“A Nigerian restaurant has been shut down after police discovered human meat being served to customers, the Daily Mail is reporting.”
First red flag- the article says that it is getting its news from Daily Mail, which is known for its sensationalism. Good popular news article usually cite a journal article, or a university, or a recognized government organization, or at least an expert. Citing another sensational news website as your resource is not a great sign. Second red flag- if you click the Daily Mail link it is dead and says the article has been taken down. Hmm. So there isn’t actually any resource to help us narrow down where this information came from.
If we look around, another article with the same title reviews more about the tragedy of the Nigerian restaurant selling human meat, and shares loads of details:
“When police raided the restaurant they discovered human heads that were still bleeding, with the blood draining into plastic bags.
A priest who ate at the restaurant was alarmed when presented with a bill of 700 Naira, or roughly $4.40 (Tens of millions of people in Nigeria subsist on less than $1 a day). “The attendant noticed my reaction and told me it was the small piece of meat I had eaten that made the bill scale that high,” he said. “I did not know I had been served with human meat, and that it was that expensive.”
Not only was the restaurant caught with human flesh, police also found a number of automatic weapons, grenades, and cell phones.”
So in this version, the restaurant actually is advertising that the human meat is on the menu, and of course, they serve it to a priest. If this restaurant is making it known that they serve human meat, and is serving it as a delicacy, how did people not know about this earlier?
What about evidence? We don’t know the restaurant, we don’t know the location, the priest seemed to be more upset about the cost of the meat and not the fact that he just ate human…
This news article attributes their information to the BBC. Well, that is definitely slightly more reliable. Of course, if you go to their link, you get this information (you have to translate it from Swahili though to read it):
“Nigeria: Reporting restaurant is not true” [sic]*
Uh oh. That isn’t a good sign.
“The story about the Nigerian restaurant Which we published here frame a mistake and we Apologise. It was incorrect and BBC published without the proper checks.We have removed the story and have launched an urgent investigation into how this happened.” [sic]*
Dang. I guess this isn’t true. But I’m not the only one questioning it. It turns out this particular news article resurfaces every couple years. Snopes has already done an investigation about the report when it was first released in 2013.
So how do we determine whether sensational news is true or not?
1. Evidence: where does the article come from, who is cited in it, does it cite an expert or reliable source like a journal or university or known organization or government? Are multiple sources citing a single unreliable source?
2. Details: could we track down this information or confirm its reliability? who was involved, where did it happen, who was at the scene when it happened
3. Realism: does the story and reactions seem real? in this one, the priest seemed more upset by price rather than food source… that is a little odd. Whereas in the whiskey cannibalism example, people quoted in the article had more real reactions.
*The phrasing is a little off here- this is due to the translator used by Google Chrome. I didn’t alter it since I wanted to keep the original source