Monday, October 29, 2007

News values: A classic man-bites-dog story

Two stories here, both from the British Broadcasting Corp. Both illustrate the cliche, "When a man bites a dog, it's news. When a dog bites a man, it's not.

The first, on the BBC News website today (well, actually tomorrow since it's Tuesday morning already in the U.K.), is a hunting story gone wrong. The head says it all: "Dog shoots Iowa man during hunt." The dog, it turns out, stepped on his gun when he set it down. I read it because Mike Royko, late columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Trib, used to pick up stories like that all the time. He had done enough police reporting in his younger days to be a firm believer in gun control. (Police reporting does that to you, as you cover too many tavern brawls and accidental gunshot wounds, but that's a story for another day and probably another class.) So Royko, whose column was widely syndicated, was always ready to give national ink to dumb accidents involving guns.

Then, off to the side, I saw the link to the classic man-bites-dog story. It was irresistable. I clicked, and there it was. The perfect man-bites-dog headline.

"Man bites dog (and a policeman)," said the headline, dated Nov. 13, 2004. To their credit, the writers for "the Beeb" played the story absolutely straight. It must have taken a lot of inner strength to resist the temptation to play it for laughs. But they persevered. As written, the story was a straight-laced account of a scuffle involving the dog, the policeman and a man who was subsequently charged with resisting arrest. And it was even funnier that way.

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