After mulling ov…

Joel Sawyer

After mulling over numerous tall tales and zany stories for our December “Urban Legends” issue, I decided to write an absurd, ridiculous whopper that no one would ever believe.
Using elements of an existing urban legend, I fabricated a story about a University student struggling for his life after his kidneys were stolen by a ring of international organ thieves.
The unfortunate student — the mythical Douglas Burkholt — had his kidneys surgically removed after a night of partying with strangers. He suspected they drugged him, stole his organs, and left him for dead.
Although police officials weren’t positive, they suspected the theft was part of a clandestine, world-wide black-market organ trading operation that sold spleens, hearts, kidneys and lungs to the highest bidder. Burkholt, I wrote, had become the third organ-theft victim on campus and ninth in Minnesota in 1996.
Despite a slew of references to phony organizations (The FBI’s Federation of Medical Practitioners), locations (Beltre Towers Residence Hall), people (Sen. Terrence Fleck (R-Texas)), and events (a proposed Congressional bill to execute organ traffickers), many people believed the story.
The Daily received more than a dozen phone calls from people asking if the story was true. A local radio station called and requested more information; concerned parents of University students asked if their children were in danger; an organ transplantation association called and complained the story was giving their business a bad name.
I also received a call from representatives from a social service agency who said many of their non-English-speaking clients had heard about the story and were afraid to go out at night.
An editor even found a reference to the rumor — using phrases taken directly from my story — in a British magazine.
The organ-theft story illustrates the influential power of the media. Most media scholars argue that journalists only have the power to shape what people think about, not what they think. For the gullible, this story proved otherwise.
One of the cardinal sins of photography at the Daily is including staffers in photos. We broke that rule with this photo.
I play the role of Burkholt, displaying my wounds in a hospital ward bathroom. The photo was actually taken in photographer Lisa Welty’s bathroom. We concocted blood by mixing ketchup, chocolate syrup, fake vampire blood, honey, and a dash of pepper. Welty and her roommate then painted the goop onto my back in the spot where we thought kidney-thieves would make the first incision.