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illustration of a dog with a newspaper in its mouth
figure 1  

 

MAN BITES DOG! Truly unusual news that turns the expected on its head.

This is a cliché of the news business: the unusual gets the headline, the expected is not news. In his chronicle of the (New York) Sun from to 1833-1918, Frank O'Brien quotes city editor John Bogart: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”reference 1 This may seem self-evident. However, the nature of what is and is not considered news shifts over time. The Man-bites-dog adage is actually part of larger set of journalistic principles that signaled a significant departure in journalistic values.

In the mid 19th century most newspapers were highly partisan—making today's Fox News look genuinely fair and balanced. Readers were not always made aware what was a news story and what was a paid advertisement (think product placement). Many papers (with the exception of Horace Greeley's Tribune) also prominently featured what we now call infotainment and fiction to the exclusion of hard news. The Sun regularly featured the rags-to-riches tales of Horatio Alger. “What did women readers of the Sun care about the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania,” O'Brien asks sardonically, “when they could devour daily two columns of ‘Jessie Graham; or Love and Pride?’”reference 2 In 1868 Charles A. Dana (a Greeley protégé) became the Sun's editor and manager, implementing a radically differnt mission. He also began to articulate a journalistic ethic that still shapes news reporting today. In a 1888 speech to the Wisconsin Editorial Association he spoke of the need for principles—though not rules—for journalists:

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spacer Portrait of Charles Dana
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There is no system of maxims or professional rules that I know of that is laid down for the guidance of the journalist. The physician has his system of ethics and that sublime oath of Hippocrates which human wisdom has never transcended. The lawyer also has his code of ethics and the rules of the courts and the rules of practice which he is instructed in; but I have never met with a system of maxims that seemed to me to be perfectly adapted to the general direction of a newspaperman.reference 3

The first maxims he propounded were ethical in nature. As O'Brien sums them up: “don't loaf, don't cheat, don't dissemble, don't bully, don't be narrow, don't grouch.”reference 4 Eventually these principles grew to include the news business as a whole. Reading these guidelines today they are not just familiar, we routinely expect of news organizations to meet them and complain when they don't. In Dana's time, these were new and influential ideas. While man-bites-dog is not his formulation, it is certainly Bogart's reasonable interpretation of his editor's philosophy. Dana defines news as “everything that occurs, every thing which is of human interest, and which is of sufficient interest to arrest and absorb the attention of the public or any considerable part of it.”reference 5 The ordinary and expected (such as dog bites) tend not to absorb the public's attention.

 

 

1. O'Brien, Frank Michael. 1918. The Story of the Sun. New York: George H. Doran company. 241.

 

 

 

 

2. Ibid. 196.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Ibid. 238.

 

4. Ibid. 239. Click here to read Dana's more thoughtful rendering of these principles.

 

5. Ibid. 241.

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newspaper article about boy being mauled spacer
figure 3
While Bogart's shorthand has the advantage of being more colorful than Dana's definition, as a literal guideline it doesn't always work. Sometimes a dog biting a human is news, big news. During the spring of 2001, reports about dog assaults were singularly hot items in the northern California media. Vicious attack dogs, owned by imprisoned criminals and housed by the owners' attorneys, attacked and killed a woman in San Francisco. A boy of ten was mauled and nearly killed by a pit bull in Richmond. Both of these stories stretched on for days, even weeks. Of course the story about a man who tossed a dog from his moving vehicle into traffic (close to a literal man-bites-dog report) received almost as much immediate attention as the others, but it was not as sustained.
 

When it comes to actual usage of the phrase, newspapers are among the more common sources. “The city has heard plenty of stories of bowling alleys closing...so the opening of an alley, even a small one attached to a bar, has a man-bites-dog feel to it,” reports New York Times reporter Jake Mooney.reference 6 Non-reporters may use the phrase simply to refer to a situation in which the unexpected is less exceptional than we thought. Again in the Times, Sara Mead, an education expert at the New American Foundation is quoted as describing an emerging interest in all-boys educational environment as a “man bites dog” phenomenon.reference 7 After a decade of concern for girls, someone finally noticed that while their counterparts were also suffering from self-esteem issues; the boys were often the ones in disciplinary trouble and—perhaps worse—simply not finishing school. Mead is referring to this inversion of “conventional wisdom” as news in a more general sense.

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spacer photograph of August Strindberg
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In regards to humans biting dogs, August Strindberg is widely quoted as having written, “I loathe people who keep dogs. They are cowards who haven't got the guts to bite people themselves.”reference 8 However, since this Swedish writer, best known for his plays, did not write in English, such an attribution is not always accurate. In the 1968 translation by Anthony Swerling, the line in a less colorful translation reads: “I always disliked dogs, those protectors of cowards who lack the courage to fight an assailant themselves.”reference 9 It gives a very different meaning, don't you think? Though who am I to say which one best catches Strindberg's intent. The quotation comes from an autobiographical story whose title is translated variously as A Madman's Defense, A Madman's Manifesto, or A Madman's Diary. Perusing pictures of the writer, I must say he looks a bit of a madman himself.

6. Mooney, Jake. 2007. Ten Pins, Eight Lanes and a Bow to the Past. New York Times, Oct 21. Accessed Apr 18 2008 from http:// www.nytimes.com/ 2007/ 10/ 21/ nyregion/ thecity/ 21disp.html.

 

7. Weil, Elizabeth. 2008. Teaching Boys and Girls Separately. New York Times, Mar 2. Accessed Apr 18 2008 from http:// www.nytimes.com/ 2008/ 03/ 02/ magazine/ 02sex3-t.html.

 

8. Quotations. 2005. MSN Encarta. MSN. Accessed Mar 9 2005 from http:// encarta.msn.com /quote_561549109/.

9. The Columbia World of Quotations. 1996. (Release 1.1) Columbia University Press. Accessed May 31 2006 from http:// www.bartleby.com /66/.
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About the illustrations: Figure 1. This headline reference is hardly the only way in which dogs and newspapers are thought of together. Though I have never met a dog who did this, there is a persistent image of the faithful dog fetching his master's morning newspaper. This pooch seems as if he might be unwilling to give up this edition © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.

Figure 2 is of Charles Dana taken in 1869 a year after to took the helm at the Sun. The photograph is in the public domain because the copyright has expired.

Figure 3 is a reproduction of a headline in the Toronto Sun from August 25, 2003 that is displayed on the web site of Doggone Safe: a non-profit organization dedicated to dog bite prevention. There can be no doubt that this dog-bites-boy story was news.

Figure 4 is a photographic self-portrait of Strindberg. I could imagine him biting someone. Under Swedish law a photograph taken by a photographer who died before 1944 is in the public domain.

see also: bark is worse than his bite; bite the hand that feed's one Last updated: August 10, 2008
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