On Feb. 25, Dallas police announced that there was no truth to a rumor gripping the city that a local moviegoer had sat on an HIV-infected needle, planted in a theater seat by an apparently disgruntled victim of the disease.
The hysteria was being fed by a chain e-mail, which flooded in-boxes with the subject line "Safety Bulletin."
"Police say it's unclear who initiated the false e-mail," the Dallas Morning News reported Feb. 26.
The police, newspaper and public might have saved themselves a lot of trouble, if only they were regular readers of Urban Legends Reference Pages.
There, they would have seen two examples of the chain e-mail (one in Bombay, the other in Hawaii), learned about a cousin rumor about nightclubs in 10 different cities worldwide and about yet another concerning syringes left in the coin slots of pay phones. They also could have seen the dates and headlines of a dozen articles over the past decade relating to the subject.
"No such attacks on moviegoers have been reported in Bombay, Hawaii, or anywhere else in the world," Urban Legends Reference Pages co-founder Barbara Mikkelson writes. "What we have here is an urban legend trading on our fears of catching AIDS."
From hydrogen-laced beer causing Japanese karaoke singers to breathe fire, to radioactive kitty litter to exploding toilet seats, Mikkelson and her husband, David, have been painstakingly debunking e-mail-transmitted urban legends -- and catching the news organizations that fall for them -- since early 1995.
"Our main interest is the study of contemporary lore," Mikkelson explained via e-mail. "Though we get dragged into researching Internet hoaxes and scares... our true interest lies in examining various urban legends, how they're being told, who's telling them, how long the story has been around and where it came from, what changes it has gone through as time passed and -- my favorite -- what these stories tell about us, the people who pass them along."
From their home in Agoura, Calif., the Mikkelsons use what Barbara calls their "encyclopedic minds," with the help of their massive readership (nearly 8 million page impressions a month, 6,000 subscribers), to track the latest shaggy dog story making the rounds.
David, 38, works on the Web site of a California-based HMO, and spends 20 hours of his weekly free time on Urban Legends Reference Pages. Barbara, 39, is a housewife, and spends most of her waking hours on it.
"Both of us are familiar with just about every urban legend there's ever been," she said.
Urban Legends' readers include a growing number of journalists, according to Mikkelson. "In a normal week, we field maybe four requests from various people in the media for further information about something they're working on."
This year alone, the site has been cited in Newsweek, Playboy, Entertainment Weekly, the Denver Post, the Ottawa Sun, the Seattle Times, the London Free Times, the Roanoke Times & World News, the Toronto Sun and the Columbus Dispatch.
The Mikkelsons break down the dis-information into categories called Horror, Sex, Music, Radio/TV, Movies, College, Disney, Christmas, Lost Legends, Cokelore, Weddings and Questionable Quotes. Color-coded bullets mark whether the tale is true, false, undetermined or unverifiable.
After watching hoaxes and rumors find their way into print, online or over the airwaves, Mikkelson has concluded that the most respected news organizations really do the best job of checking out sources and weeding out lies.
"Talk radio is perhaps the biggest bugaboo of all," she said. "These lads have to supply funny/horrifying/moralistic tales to their audiences or they'll be pulled in favor of someone who will. Consequently, they couldn't possibly give a damn whether something checks out or not."
Mikkelson has this advice for editors:
"When something continues to niggle at your common sense despite assurances that the story is for real, take another look. And never, ever rely on only one person's say-so -- confirm facts instead of placing trust in even the most reliable of sources," she said.
"Anything laced with a heavy dollop of humor should always provoke at least the slight arching of an eyebrow. Mom always said if something appears too good to be true, it generally is."
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