Black Dahlia: Hack Writing and the Birth of Urban Myths

Hollywood Citizen-News, Jan. 15, 1947.

I’m slowly digitizing my files on the Elizabeth Short killing for easier access, and yesterday I was going through the Hollywood Citizen-News, which is one of the lesser sources on the case.  And, of course, the unidentified reporter  did exactly what we see today: a few graphs down, the writer dives into the clips. (Remember, Aggie Underwood’s Red Manley interview is the only time anyone received a byline in the original stories).

This is a trick used by reporters (or more frequently these days, online editors) to pad out a story when there aren’t enough details.

For example, if you were reporting about a chicken crossing the road, you might write that the chicken crossed the road, then write that there was a SigAlert caused by the chicken crossing the road, then post readers’ photos of the chicken crossing the road, then interview some obscure professor from an obscure university who studies chickens crossing the road, etc.

And finally you would get to the boilerplate: “This is not the first time a chicken has crossed the road” and dump in some old stories.

Which is exactly what happened in 1947 while the Citizen-News was covering the Black Dahlia case. (Recall that the Citizen-News was the only paper to report – erroneously – that Elizabeth Short’s leg was broken, which doesn’t help its credibility).

The Citizen-News refers to the Otto Stephen Wilson case of 1944. Wilson was convicted in 1945 and executed in 1946, so the case is entirely unrelated, but he was still good for a few paragraphs of padding:

Hollywood Citizen-News, Jan. 15, 1947, Hollywood Citizen-News, Jan. 15, 1947

This is an elementary technique that is most frequently found in second- and third-tier publications that trade in sensationalism and scandal. When the Herald-Express used it in later stories about killings of other women in Los Angeles, the laundry list of old crimes was enough for some writers to  seize upon them as proof that a serial killer was on the loose in Los Angeles. And that is one way urban myths take root.


About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1944, 1945, 1946, 1947, Black Dahlia, LAPD and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Black Dahlia: Hack Writing and the Birth of Urban Myths

  1. Lozano, Carlos says:




  2. Eve says:

    Nowadays, the NY Post and News are the only newspapers that still use words like FIEND and SLAY in their headlines.


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