April Fool’s Day stories: That’s not funny!

April 3, 2014 01:31

The BBC's famous 1957 "spaghetti tree" April Fool's Day prank

By Vincent Duffy, RTDNF Chairman
I love a good April Fool’s joke. Call me immature, call me juvenile, but if you’re planning a clever prank that won’t hurt anyone’s feelings or damage property, I want to help.

That’s why I love clever, fake news stories that appear on April 1st. NPR has done this for years in their news magazines, and this year they fooled the gullible with a story about the hooded sweater for your cat that makes it look like the cat is a very hairy-chested man. I knew right away the story was bogus, but I was fooled in 1994 by a story on All Things Considered about companies such as Pepsi paying teens and athletes to get corporate logo tattoos.
We had a little fun at Michigan Radio as well, publishing a story on our website that due to a widely circulated petition, banjos had been banned from the annual Water Hill Music Festival.

It fooled lots of people, especially those who only read the headlines and not the story, and those who write angry comments without reading any of the other comments.
When I shared the fun on my Facebook page, not all of my journalism friends were amused. Greg Korte, who covers Congress for USA Today wrote, “April Fool’s jokes are amateurish. What NPR does every year is an embarrassment.” [Quoted with permission.]

I was a little taken aback by Korte’s comment, because I respect his opinion on journalistic matters, and I know he’s not a humorless guy. Years ago when we both covered Akron city politics in Ohio, we shared many a laugh over the antics of certain politicians with over-sized egos. When I asked for some clarification, Korte said, “I don’t think professional journalists should be in the business of misleading their audience. Even if it’s all in good fun, you run the risk that some won’t get the joke, or stick around for the punch line. At the very least, you may have wasted someone’s time.”

Korte got me to do something my family members will confirm makes me uncomfortable, which is entertain the idea that I might be wrong about something.

I conducted an informal and not at all scientific poll of colleagues and journalism friends, and the result was an even split, with no significant differences between gender, medium, years in the business, or market size. We are a divided industry on this question.

Charity Nebbe, the host of Talk of Iowa on Iowa Public Radio says, “I like (them), I think they’re funny and I even enjoy being fooled for a little while.” Sports writer John U. Bacon says a well-crafted April Fool’s story can even serve a purpose, “reminding all of us how much trust we invest in news sources, and therefore how vulnerable we are to being duped.”

The best reason I heard for not producing a fake story for April Fool’s Day is that in this age when information travels so quickly and without critical thought, other media outlets might pick up the story without asking any questions.

Eric Mansfield is the Executive Director of University Media Relations at Kent State University, but he shared this story from when he was a reporter and anchor at WKYC-TV in Cleveland. “I blogged years ago with an April Fool's stunt,” Mansfield said. “I wrote that Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton were going to play the inaugural concert at the University of Akron’s new football stadium. There was enough fluff in the copy that I thought people would know it was bogus. First, a morning show jock picked it up and blasted it on the radio, so it spread that way and people thought it was legit. Then, I found out that WKYC-TV had digitally linked my blog directly to its website and other social media, so when I posted the bogus headline, it immediately went across the bottom of the screen during the TODAY Show!”

“Needless to say, we had some explaining to do to viewers,” Mansfield said, “So as a journalist, I learned my lesson of how fast an April Fool's Day prank story can go awry, even when it's just a journalist's personal web presence.”

Lots of fellow journalists pointed out that our most important commodity is our credibility, especially in an age when too many media outlets report first and fact-check later, and some political organizations and activists purposefully spread misinformation through social media. If we want to be trusted, we shouldn’t be in the game of fooling people.

It’s a good point. So I’m rethinking my love of April Fool’s Day stories (or maybe I’m just setting you up for next year).