‘Dog Bites a Man’ Is Not News. ‘Man Bites a Dog’ Is News

John B. Bogart? Charles A. Dana? Amos Cummings? Horace Greeley? Jesse Lynch Williams? Billy Woods? Doc Wood? Alfred Harmsworth? Lord Northcliffe? Joseph Pulitzer? Anonymous?

dana04Dear Quote Investigator: Would you please explore one of the most famous maxims in the news business? Legend states that a neophyte reporter asked a sage editor to define “news”, and he received this reply:

When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.

This saying has been credited to several newspaper people including: John B. Bogart, Amos Cummings, and Charles A. Dana who all worked at the New York Sun. The British press baron Alfred Harmsworth who became Lord Northcliffe has also been named as the originator.

Quote Investigator: The earliest written evidence located by QI appeared in a book titled “The Stolen Story and Other Newspaper Stories” by Jesse Lynch Williams in 1899. The adage was spoken by a fictional character named “Billy Woods” in a chapter called “The Old Reporter”. Woods was considered a repository of knowledge and wisdom by fellow reporters though his lack of a college education sometimes made him self-conscious. In the following passage Woods entertained young reporters and explained his concept of newsworthiness. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Then he would open up, put them at their ease, discourse interestingly about the traditions of the office, and fascinate them, as he could anyone, man or woman, who came in his way.

“No wonder Senators at the Fifth Avenue Hotel like to have Mr. Woods come up and slap them on the back!” “No wonder he can make anybody talk about everything,” thought the new reporters, while the old one went on in his rapid style, “You’ll soon assimilate the idea. Now, for instance, ‘A dog bites a man’—that’s a story; ‘A man bites a dog’—that’s a good story,” etc., until in a lull there came the question—inevitable from very recent graduates:

“What college are you from Mr. Woods?”
Billy always felt better when this was over.

The author Jesse Lynch Williams went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. QI speculates that Williams was trying to achieve verisimilitude in his novel by relaying an anonymous witty remark he had heard from within the newspaper business.

By August 1902 a version of the adage was being credited to the prominent newspaper editor Charles Anderson Dana. Here is a short item from a paper in Omaha, Nebraska that reprinted information from a paper in Buffalo, New York: 2

The Buffalo Commercial relates that Richard Harding Davis once asked Charles A. Dana: “What constitutes news?” “If you should see a dog biting a man,” replied Dana, “don’t write it up. But if you should see a man biting a dog, spare not money, men nor telegraph tolls to get the details to the Sun office.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The above saying and attribution were widely distributed and elicited some commentary. In August 1902 a paper in Washington, D.C. reprinted an article from a Chicago newspaper that claimed the adage had been derived from another saying crafted by ‘Doc’ Wood. However, the supposed original statement was not very compelling or memorable. Interestingly, the name “Wood” was similar to the fictional name “Woods”: 3

The “Buffalo Commercial” says that Charles A. Dana once defined news in this way: “If you see a dog biting a man don’t write it up. But if you see a man biting a dog spare no pains or money to get the details to the “Sun” office.

This is a poor paraphrase of a good story. When “Doc” Wood was night editor of the “Sun” a young reporter asked him: “What constitutes news?” Mr. Wood considered for a moment and then replied: “Here’s an illustration which will probably give you a correct idea of what I think on that subject. If you should see a dog running down Broadway with a tin can tied to his tail it isn’t worth a line. But if you should see a dog with a tin can tied to his tall—walking down Broadway it’s worth a column.”—Chicago Chronicle.

In December 1902 a newspaper in Illinois printed a compact version of the maxim credited to an anonymous city editor. This citation was located by top researcher Barry Popik and is listed in the key reference The Yale Book of Quotations: 4 5 6

In the city editor’s instructions to the new reporter he said: “If a man bites a dog it’s news, if a dog bites a man it isn’t.” In other words, the news is the unusual and the unexpected.

In 1909 an editorial in a Denver Colorado newspaper used a pun on the word dogmatically while attributing the maxim to another well-known newspaper editor named Horace Greeley 7

“News,” said Horace Greeley dogmatically, to a reporter, “is this: If a dog bites a man that’s nothing; but if a man bites a dog, that’s news.”

In 1911 an anecdote was recounted in which a battle broke out at a peace conference. This startling reversal was presented as an archetype of newsworthiness. The turnabout-based canine adage was also mentioned with an ascription to Charles A. Dana: 8

For lo! these many years we have been reading or hearing the favorite newspaper office story of New York—the tale of a raw hand at reporting who was sent out to report a peace meeting, came back to say there was nothing to write, because it broke up in a row, and was promptly discharged because he had no nose for news.

This yarn takes place side by side with Charles A. Dana’s famous definition of the journalistic commodity which the recruit did not know when he saw it: “If a dog bites a man,” said Dana, “that is not news. If a man bites a dog, that is news.”

In 1912 the famous newspaperman Arthur Brisbane made remarks to a gathering in New York that included the maxim together with a comically mordant addendum: 9

Arthur Brisbane, the editor, praised, at a dinner in New York, the educative value of moving pictures. “But, of course,” he said afterwards, “the moving picture will never equal the newspaper as an educative force.

“The newspaper not only reports news—in dull seasons it makes news as well. A famous editor put this news-making feature very neatly before a cub reporter when he said: ‘If a dog bites a man it isn’t news. But, if a man bites a dog, it is. Whenever you can’t find a man biting a dog, go and bite one yourself.'”

In 1917 the adage was credited to Charles A. Dana in a periodical called “The Bookman”. This citation was used in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and the Yale Book of Quotations: 10 11 12

It was the late Charles A. Dana who is credited with saying: “If a dog bites a man it is not news, but if a man bites a dog it is.”

In 1918 a volume of journalistic history was published titled “The Story of the Sun: New York, 1833-1918” by Frank M. O’Brien. The maxim was ascribed to John B. Bogart, a worker at the Sun. This citation was used in the Brewer’s Famous Quotations and the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations: 13 14 15

John Bogart a city editor of the Sun who absorbed the Dana idea of news and the handling thereof, once said to a young reporter:

“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.”

The Sun always waited for the man to bite the dog.

In 1921 Arthur Brisbane mentioned the saying again, and this time he ascribed the words to Amos Cummings. Three different journalists at the New York Sun have been attached to the remark: Dana, Bogart and Cummings: 16

The sun and moon rise; that is not news. But if the sun failed to rise and shine in a clear sky, that would be news indeed.

Amos Cummings said: “If a dog bites a man, that is not news. But if a man bites a dog that is news.”

In 1922 a columnist in the Boston Globe noted that the saying had traveled across the Atlantic to London, and a press magnate named Lord Northcliffe was reportedly employing the adage: 17

A London journalist was talking about Northcliffe the other day and mentioned the fact that he had once heard him give a definition of news, but when he repeated the remark it was nothing but the familiar saying which has been attributed to various American editors. You know, the one that goes, “If a dog bites a man, that’s not news. If a man bites a dog, that’s news.”

By 1934 the attribution for the saying had migrated to newsman Joseph Pulitzer: 18

The saying about “when a man bites a dog, that’s news,” by now should be familiar to most newspaper readers as a succinct if threadbare summery of the principles guiding those in charge of the public’s reading fare. So popular has it been that its authorship has been attributed to both the American Pulitzer and the English Northcliffe.

In conclusion, the earliest instance of this adage located by QI was spoken by a fictional journalist in an 1899 book by a Pulitzer-prize-winning dramatist named Jesse Lynch Williams. It is conceivable that Lynch crafted the phrase, but QI thinks it is more likely that he was repeating an existing saying.

A few years later in 1902 a version of the maxim was ascribed to Charles Anderson Dana, the long-time editor of the New York Sun newspaper who died in 1897. In the ensuing years the phrase has been credited to a variety of people in the news business including Horace Greeley, John B. Bogart, Amos Cummings, and Alfred Harmsworth. But the supporting evidence for these candidates is weak because the citations are late and second-hand.

Arthur Brisbane and many other journalists have used the expression without claiming coinage.

Image notes: Yorkshire terrier: Pixabay: Public Domain. Photo of journalist Charles Anderson Dana: Wikipedia: Public Domain: 1898.

(Great thanks to Richard Evans whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and re-initiate this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1899, The Stolen Story and Other Newspaper Stories by Jesse Lynch Williams, Chapter: The Old Reporter, Start Page 215, Quote Page 223, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1902 August 3, Omaha Daily Bee, Personal and General, (Paragraph size news item), Quote Page 14, Column 5, Omaha, Nebraska. (Chronicling America)
  3. 1902 August 4, The Evening Times, News, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Washington, D.C. (Chronicling America)
  4. 1902 December 28, Sunday Review (Decatur Daily Review), All Will Come Back: Vacation Robbed Us of No Teacher This Time, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Decatur, Illinois, (NewspaperArchive)
  5. Website: The Big Apple: Barry Popik, Article title: Man Bites Dog, Date on website: March 16, 2005, Website description: etymological dictionary (over 10,000 entries) investigating the origins of American words, names, quotations and phrases. (Accessed barrypopik.com on November 22, 2013) link
  6. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Charles A. Dana, Quote Page 183, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1909 June 25, 1909, Denver Post, Editorials: ‘News’ and ‘Views’ by Hugh O’Neill, Quote Page 20 (Back Page), Column 1, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1911 December 20, Charleston News and Courier, Embattled Peacemakers (From the New York Press), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1912 March 28, Morgan County Republican, Modern Journalism, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Versailles, Missouri. (Chronicling America)
  10. 1917 February, The Bookman: A Magazine of Literature and Life, Volume 44, Number 6, The Hateful Ridge: An Incident on the Somme Front by Frederick Palmer, Start Page 581, Quote Page 588, Column 1, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  11. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Editor Elizabeth Knowles, “Charles A. Dana”, Oxford Reference Online, Print Publication Date: 2009, Oxford University Press. (Accessed November 22, 2013)
  12. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Charles A. Dana, Quote Page 183, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  13. 1918, The Story of the Sun: New York, 1833-1918 by Frank M. O’Brien (Frank Michael O’Brien), Quote Page 241, George H. Doran Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  14. 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section: John B Bogart, Page 95, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper)
  15. Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations, Editor Elizabeth Knowles, “Charles A. Dana”, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press 2008. (Accessed November 22, 2013)
  16. 1921 February 10, Denver Post, Today by Arthur Brisbane, Quote Page 20 (Back Page), Column 7, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)
  17. 1922 December 14, Boston Daily Globe, It Seems to Me by Heywood Broun, Quote Page 16, Column 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  18. 1934 February 11, Augusta Chronicle, Man Bites Dog, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Augusta, Georgia. (In the image “succinct” was misspelled as “succint”)(GenealogyBank)