Bad Press: April Fool’s editions cause problems
May 1, 2012
When “The War of the Worlds” aired in 1938 as a Halloween episode of the radio drama anthology series “Mercury Theatre on the Air,” the program allegedly elicited mass panic among its listeners. Set up to imitate a series of new bulletins, and running without commercial breaks, the broadcast reported that Martians were invading Earth.
Fallout among the program’s listeners was significant following the episode, though the extent of that fallout has been debated. Regardless, “The War of the Worlds” was one of many examples illustrating how a media item intended as a form of entertainment can be interpreted as a real event by other media outlets and its audience.
In this respect, little has changed in subsequent decades, aside from the vehicles of communication. The Ontario County Line, a 2,000-circulation weekly in Ontario, WI, played an April Fool’s joke this year when it ran a fictional story about The Walt Disney Co. buying a state hiking trail in Wisconsin. Residents created an uproar in the days following publication—to the point where they began to plan protests at the state capitol. In the end, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources had to issue a press release debunking the story.
Eliciting a Firestorm
In some cases, the consequences can be dire. At the beginning of April, University of Missouri’s student-run newspaper, The Maneater, published a satirical April Fools’ issue. It was soundly criticized by readers for being highly offensive. After an onslaught of intense criticism, the managing editor resigned.
“The Carpeteater,” a wraparound section The Maneater featured in the controversial issue, parodied university students, groups and administrators as well as Columbia, MO, city officials and programs. The title, widely considered a derogatory reference to lesbians, was not the only source of contention; readers also reacted strongly to a series of expletives typically used to demean women. The combination caused a public outcry from students and staff alike. Most notable was a letter written by MU student Kathy Rudd, slamming the issue for its offensive tone. More than 200 MU staffers, alumni and students signed the letter. Among the signers were previous Maneater staffers and contributors.
Managing Editor Abby Spudich responded by issuing a letter of apology and accepting full responsibility, acknowledging that she was the last person to review the content before publication. She went on to claim that she was not aware the title was considered a slur, and revealed that the newspaper’s staff was seeking training by the University of Missouri Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Resource Center (http://lgbtqu.missouri.edu) to prevent future slip-ups of this nature.
In the end, Spudich resigned, as did Editor in Chief Travis Cornejo. Spudich was so effected by the experience, she revealed that she may reevaluate pursuing a career in journalism. She believed her chances for landing a job in the field would be slim because of The Maneater debacle.
Jim Pumarlo, a newspaper consultant who writes about media ethics and is director of communications for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, advises extreme caution when making the decision to publish satirical content.
“The way that the piece or issue is handled makes a critical difference in how it will most likely be perceived. As long as the content is fun and does not have the potential to cause damage, publishing it can be harmless. However, if I had to advise whether or not to include satirical content, I would lean towards refraining from doing so,” he said.
Satirical news items can cause a ripple effect across multiple outlets as well. At the beginning of April, Thomas Roberts reported during his regular MSNBC segment that Apple and Microsoft had held a press conference to announce they wanted the National Organization for Marriage to boycott their companies just like it had boycotted Starbucks for supporting marriage equality for same-sex couples.
If the pairing of the two business rivals seems like a stretch, it’s because it never happened. MSNBC lifted the information from a piece Daily Kos featured writer Scott Wooledge had written purely as satire. The piece included a disclaimer at the end, stating it was satirical in nature.
“I certainly made no effort to depict it as a serious story; if you look at some of the quotes I fabricated on behalf of Apple and Microsoft, they were outrageous. I would think any reasonably skeptical person would read those quotes and figure, there is no way public relations people would talk like that,” he said.
Wooledge received a variety of responses ranging from positive to negative.
“There were a lot of people who thought it was just plain funny that MSNBC had picked it up as a serious story. There were also people who rightfully felt it was ridiculous that MSNBC had run the story without even reading to the end. Also, they ran it without checking with either Apple or Microsoft. I did get people who thought that I was being sneaky by posting it, that I had tried to pull one over and that it was a hoax. It was not a hoax, because a hoax is intended to fool people, and that was never my intention,” he said.
Notably absent were the main subjects of the post. Neither Apple nor Microsoft contacted Wooledge following publication.
“Honestly, it does not surprise me. I made it clear that it was satire, as I am well aware that both companies have legions of attorneys. I even researched the issue of libel for satire, and I was comfortable that I stayed within the legal boundaries of what is acceptable,” he noted.
Wooledge escaped without any visible scars because of the savvy, informed way he handled the post, but Pumarlo is resolute in his conviction that satire is typically not the wisest route for news outlets to take in their content.
“There are ways you can inject humor into your coverage without running satirical stories. Coverage should include that element of fun, but it should not cross the line into stories that are blatantly false,” he explained.
Wooledge disagrees, arguing that satire still holds literary and entertainment value for society that should not be disregarded or lost.
“I would encourage outlets to leverage satire; greats like Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker have done it,” he said, adding, “It is a great tradition in literature. We should not dumb down the public because of possible consequences. News outlets just need to handle it carefully. For example, Huffington Post published the piece in its comedy section, making it obvious that it was satire.” © Megan Oster 2011
Megan Oster is a Chicago-based writer with more than a decade of experience writing a variety of material ranging from newspaper and trade magazine articles to public relations and marketing pieces. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.