I learned in my undergraduate journalism classes at Michigan State University (1951-55) that while man-bites-dog is definitely news, dog-bites-man usually isn't.
One of our textbooks - "Modern News Reporting" by Carl Warren - labeled this primary element of news value "Oddity . . . or the WOW factor."Warren listed eight elements that define news: immediacy, proximity, prominence, oddity, conflict, suspense, emotions and consequence.
Now, as a folklorist, I realize that the rules fit urban legends almost as well as news stories.
Trained in this tradition, what news reporter wouldn't rush to cover these stories?
-Local family vacationing in Mexico loses grandmother to heart attack, then loses Granny's corpse when their car and its contents are stolen.
-Prominent businessman mistakes secretary's invitation as a come-on; finds himself wearing only his socks at family's surprise birthday party, held at her apartment.
-Veterinarian extracts two fingers from dog's throat; police discover wounded intruder hiding in dog-owner's apartment.
The only element these scenarios lack to qualify as front-page news is truth. All of them are plots of urban legends - "The Runaway Grandmother," "The Nude Surprise Party" and "The Choking Doberman."
Journalists often call me to ask about "hot" stories that proved to be untrue. Often these unverifiable stories contain urban legend elements.
A TV reporter in Salt Lake City, for instance, sent me this letter, which had been sent anonymously to members of the local news media:
"Currently there is a 6-year-old girl in Primary Children's Medical Center with no hands.
"She apparently took a hammer to the family car, and to punish her, her father took the same hammer to her hands. By the time they got her to the hospital she had lost two fingers, and her blood vessels, bones and nerves were so badly damaged that they had to amputate both hands.
"The mother will not press charges because `he is in charge of discipline,' and the hospital is being forced to return the child to these two crazy people.
"For God's sake, can't the media do something?"
This story certainly contains "the WOW factor" and just about every other element required to deserve full investigative news treatment - except that it is completely fictional.
There was no such child, no such crime and no cover-up, according to the reporter, who told me that he had checked the story out thoroughly.
Although the story reflects details found in actual child-abuse cases, no case in the Salt Lake area, in the named hospital or elsewhere, even remotely matched the plot of the rumored scandal.
The story features a couple of typical legend motifs: the supposed legal helplessness of a wronged person and the alleged suppression of information by authorities.
One sad aspect of such incidents is that the media often cannot in good conscience report such a damaging rumor, even to debunk it. And since tipsters are often anonymous, journalists usually can't assure them personally that the story is untrue.
So it's left to me, more of a folklorist than a journalist, to attempt to dispel stories like "The Hammered Child."
(C) 1989 United Feature Syndicate Inc.