Friday, April 11, 2008

The Danger of a Good Story

A few years ago, I received, because I was on her email list, an inspirational true story from a famous speaker. I loved it. What's more, the story seemed like a perfectly timed gift, one that fit in with a sermon I was working on for the following Sunday's worship. As I crafted my sermon on Friday, I worked in the story. On Sunday, I preached and the story had precisely the impact I'd hoped it would, aptly illustrating the point I wanted to make.

But that afternoon, shortly after I'd posted the sermon on my blog, I decided to check my email first. There was another email from the famous speaker. She apologized to her readers, saying that the story she had shared with us earlier in the week, one she thought to be true, was a fabrication.

I admired the speaker's honesty and her desire to make things right. It showed real integrity. Her action incited me to email the congregation about the story and, as I recall, to remove it from the blog version of it. (I haven't been able to find the sermon by Googling my own site to confirm whether I'd expunged it or kept it in with an explanation of it in an update. If you can find the sermon and let me know about it, I'd appreciate it.)

The preacher's worst nightmare--or that of any speaker who wants to persuade people of something--is to present as true a story that isn't. It makes people doubt what you're trying to convey. No preacher--no public speaker--can claim to be perfect. I own the reality of my own imperfections to my hearers all the time. But people do have the right to expect that when I say, "This is a true story," it really is!

Not that every story we tell has to be factual. In fact, I try always to label my stories for what they are, in advance. They're either true or something like parables, stories crafted to convey deeper meanings, what Texas preacher Gerald Mann calls "truth stories." Jesus used parables all the time. (See here and here, for examples.) In fact, Jesus customarily used an inductive method of communication, often employing these stories He composed or adapted to put people into the middle of realities about life and God He wanted to convey. Among modern US politicians, Ronald Reagan was a frequent user of parables, including jokes, to communicate his vision for the country.

(Occasionally, in my preaching, I tell a joke. But I mostly prefer to allow any humor to arise more spontaneously from the text or from my interaction with the congregation in the moment. One example of this happened a number of years ago, when the congregation I served in the Cincinnati area held worship in broiling school gym one summer Sunday. We'd left the doors of the gym open to allow some air into the place. A cat walked in while I was preaching, then, evidently chagrined by all the people, just as quickly exited. Everyone had seen it. There was no way I could get back to my sermon without acknowledging it. So, I said, referring to a nearby congregation, "Must have been looking for the Cat-olic Church." After groaners like that, I find that people want me to get back to my prepared sermon.)

This morning, the Columbus Dispatch ran a story about an untruth told by Senator Hillary Clinton out on the campaign trail. No, I'm not referring to the Bosnia sniper story that unbeknownst to me as I read today's Dispatch, to which the Senator's husband had attached new media legs on Thursday.

This story which Senator Clinton has told more or less innocently (more on that in a moment), on the campaign trail both here in Ohio and more recently, in Pennsylvania, as though it were true, has now been determined to be laced with a fatal blend of added falsehood.

The story revolved around a southern Ohio woman who died last year. Trina Bachtel died after giving birth to a child, who had also died, both deaths attributable, Clinton said, based on what she had been told, to the woman's inability get health insurance.

Clinton had gotten this version of the Trina Bachtel tragedy from an apparently well-meaning Meigs County, Ohio deputy sheriff back on February 28.

The problem with the story as told to and by Clinton is that Bachtel had insurance. Most of the rest of the story as told to and by the Senator was also untrue.

Let the Dispatch take up the rest of the tale:
Clinton told aghast audiences of the woman who had lost her first child, and then her own life, because she lacked health insurance and could not get proper care...

As it turns out, almost none of what Clinton said was accurate. Bachtel was insured through her job managing a pizza restaurant, she was under the regular care of an obstetrics facility in Athens, and she had been part of the O'Bleness Health System in Ohio.

Despite allegations by some critics, Clinton did not invent the dramatic facts but instead passed on to her audiences a reasonably accurate version of the story told to her Feb. 28 by a Meigs County deputy sheriff. But a Clinton spokesman acknowledged this month that the campaign did not "fully vet" the story and that Clinton would no longer repeat it.

In addition, news organizations -- including The Dispatch -- did not promptly examine the facts of the story to determine whether it was accurate. Not until Saturday -- more than a month after the Ohio primary -- did T he New York Times report that the woman was insured and had been under the care of an obstetrics practice.

"While it is a fundamental responsibility on the part of a campaign to vet a story to make certain it is accurate, it also is the media's responsibility to verify and check out stories," said Mark Jurkowitz, a former media writer at T he Boston Globe and now associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"As far as journalism's role, it's clear: We're not stenographers."
I hold Clinton and her campaign partly innocent. But only partly. Health care is a serious issue in this campaign and one about which Clinton obviously has strong feelings, going back at least to her days as First Lady. The Bachtel tale as told to Clinton buttressed all that the Senator believes to be unjust about health care in this country and that frightens the millions of Americans who are uninsured or who worry about not having enough insurance.

But somebody should have checked the facts. The Dispatch story goes on:
Bachtel was manager for about six years of the Gallipolis Pizza Hut, where her benefits included health insurance, said Stanley Jarvis, a regional manager for the restaurant chain and a friend of Bachtel's.

In 2005, she joined the O'Bleness Health System in Athens, according to Linda Weiss, a spokeswoman for O'Bleness.

During her pregnancy in 2007, Bachtel was under the care of River Rose Obstetrics and Gynecology, which is part of the O'Bleness system and across the parking lot from O'Bleness' hospital in Athens.

According to Jane Broecker, an obstetrician at River Rose, Bachtel made 14 visits between Feb. 8 and July 31. "She came regularly for appointments," Broecker said.

In addition, records made available by O'Bleness show that Bachtel visited the hospital seven times in 2007 on an outpatient basis. Six of those visits took place on the same day she had been at River Rose.

On Aug. 1, Bachtel was admitted to O'Bleness, where her baby boy was stillborn. Two days later, she was transferred to Riverside Hospital in Columbus and finally to Ohio State University Medical Center, where she died Aug. 15.

Bachtel died of adult respiratory distress, with pneumonia and liver failure contributing to her death, her death certificate says.

Broecker said that even if Bachtel had not been insured, she would have been treated at O'Bleness. "The hospital is a charity provider," Broecker said. "We don't turn pregnant patients away."
I don't believe that the deputy sheriff who told a tale of an uninsured Bachtel being allowed to die by an uncaring health care system meant to lie. But he apparently didn't have his facts straight either. The Dispatch reports:
Bryan Holman, the 40-year-old deputy sheriff who told Clinton about Bachtel when he hosted the presidential candidate in his mobile home, could not be reached for comment.

But Susie Casto, Bachtel's aunt, told the Pomeroy Daily Sentinel that she had suggested to Holman that he tell Clinton the story to "let people know that there is a need for more health-care services in this area."

But in retelling the story, Holman and Casto got several key details wrong. For instance, Holman told Clinton that Bachtel had no insurance.

Tracy said the stories of her sister not having insurance were "a big misunderstanding. She always had health insurance."
The bottom line: Beware of a good story, however it comes to you. (For those emailed forwards, put on your list of bookmarked sites, where you can check out the veracity of supposedly true stories.)

And if you're a communicator, always check your facts. That goes for politicians as much as journalists and preachers. Then, resign yourself to the fact that sometimes, in spite of the best of intentions and the hardest of work, you still will sometimes get it wrong.

[UPDATE, CLARIFICATION: If the comments of one reader of this post over at The Moderate Voice, are any indication, my meaning in this piece may be less than clear. So, a little disclaimer, as it appears in my response there:

"We have a health insurance crisis in our country. It must be dealt with. it is a scandal that in a land of plenty, with the best health care professionals and technology in the world, anyone should suffer unnecessarily or not have access to health care. I never said anything to contradict that in this piece!

"I was saying, again, that you have to be careful with an alluring story. The point you may wish to make with it can be perfectly valid. But if the story is false, it can undermine even a good case."]

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