Saturday, October 01, 2005

They Drop Like Flies in Korean Cafes!

It's easy to understand why a daily might give space to a suspect wire story on its Web page: there are too many wire pieces and there's too little time.

However, it's fair to say that the wires have a very, very long tradition of falling prey to urban legend. One of my favourites, "Man Dies in Internet Cafe", has made its annual appearance again, with a wire story spending more than a month floating around and getting picked up by dailies as gospel.

Funny story: I mentioned the mythology to a journalists' Website, who gave it a paragraph. One of the Australian news organisations, or should I say News organisations, went ballistic and the story was un-posted. Well, let them go ballistic at me if they take exception to this post on this blog...

In 1969, the late AP Herbert - a long-time humourist (writing for Punch, I think) whose speciality was making fun of English law - described how his "Negotiable Cow" (a piece of silliness which discussed the laws relating to cheques, and whether a cheque could be written on a cow) escaped via a BBC comedy to traverse the wire agencies and finally land in The Memphis Press - Scimitar as straight news.

More recently - just a couple of years ago in fact - a US county was made fun of throughout the world because it allegedly maintained "Klingon translators" among its mental health services.

This story, again, was a blooper run by the wires. There never was a position for Klingon speakers - it was a programmer's joke which took off on the wires and became an ineradicable belief.

There are still people who run the story along by trying to "document" the scandalous waste of taxes in America because so many public sector organisations are hiring Klingon interpreters.

Here's another which falls into the "reasonable cause for scepticism" category. A couple of years ago, mobile phone batteries all over the world were exploding in pockets. Manufacturers solemnly issued warnings that users should never install after-market batteries (just like "use only Toyota original parts, I guess!), and investigations were promised.

At the time, with CommsWorld still live, I received the "no imitation parts" press release from a manufacturer and promised an exchange: if they could supply a photograph of a blown-up battery, I would run the story.

Not only did I never get the requested photograph, but after a very long time, the story took an unexpected turn. AMTA issued a statement saying that while some fake batteries had been observed to overheat, no batteries exploded, and there were never injuries - at least in Australia.

Actually, a moderately-competent chemist would have sufficed for debunking that piece. "Are there any potentially-exploding chemicals in batteries?" "No." "Oh. Thanks." Or you could ask yourself: in our paranoid world, just how long would anyone be allowed to sell potential explosives as a ubiquitous consumer product?

On to deaths in Internet cafes.

Urban legends on the wires tend to have very predictable characteristics.

They're always located "somewhere else". In recent years (although it's been around since 1981), people have preferred to die of game-playing in South Korea, Taiwan or Vietnam. It's never happened in America, Britain, Australia or New Zealand. Even the geographical details can be hints; in the "man dies" story of two years ago, the event was placed in "Kwanju, 260km south-west of Seoul" - which according to my Atlas moves Kwanju into the Yellow Sea by about 50km (interestingly, but of no particular significance: this year's cafe death happened not only in the same country as the victim of two years ago, but within a fairly short commute. I have to conclude that the southern end of South Korea has very dangerous Internet Cafes.)

The urban legend often involves unnamed characters. Hence we have a victim for whom only the first name is given, if any (imagine the editor asking the journalist to track down someone called Lee or Kim in South Korea!); "police officials" and "government officials" without names, and unnamed witnesses.

Another characteristic is that any additional research adds no facts, only local commentary. The BBC's coverage of this story, more than once over the years, is a wonderful example: every time "man dies" hits the wires, the dear old Beeb suffers corporate amnesia and sends someone to quiz medical experts in Britain, computer games experts, market experts - anything except for confirming the original facts of the story. Well, once the Beeb managed to do a "local colour" piece, and even ran a photo of such astonishingly poor quality that you have to wonder whether someone was stringing them along.

Urban myths love the moral angle: the British have a strange legal system (cheques and cows); public officials are wasting our money; fake phone batteries are dangerous; too much computer gaming is bad for you. Quite often, the moral angle is married to the kind of society where governments believe the media has an obligation to uphold public behaviour.

It's also worth observing that urban legend participants are generally cut-out stereotypes: nobody ever died in a Korean Internet cafe without being an unemployed 20-something who lives at home.

And, of course, the best urban legends happen when the wires crib the local media and get facts scrambled along the way...

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