Monday, April 4, 2011

On April Fool’s Day, the joke can be on journalists-

Michael "Clay" Carey

I like funny stuff. And I love a good practical joke.

But I'm not a big fan of newspaper editors-turned-pranksters who seem to pop up every April 1.

Joke stories turn up every year as newspapers try to put forward a lighter side. A newspaper friend showed me this one, which ran Friday in The Shelbyville Times-Gazette in my home state of Tennessee. The headline: "City manager to be chosen by reality TV."

It's a short story, six paragraphs plus an editor's note, and I guess it's funny. The gist is that officials want to find their next municipal CEO through an Apprentice-style weekly competition, complete with television cameras, outrageous challenges and a flashy ending - each week's loser gets shoved into the Duck River by a Shelbyville City Council member.

You don't have to be a genius to figure out the gag. The outlandishness of the story aside, there are hints, including the name of the production company that would make the show (Loof Lirpa, April Fool spelled backward). And if that wasn't enough, the following editor's note appears at the end: "Readers would be well advised to check their calendar, not to believe everything they read or hear today, and to have a safe and pleasant April Fool's Day." The Times Gazette does this every year on April 1 (see past stories here, here and here).

I'm troubled by these stories and others like them for ethical reasons. The ethical guidelines published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists speak to accuracy. SPJ advises that stories should not misrepresent. ASNE similarly tells us stories should be held to a high standard of accuracy. Those codes weren't written with Loof Lirpa in mind, but journalists would do well to remember them when they consider pranking readers.

Sometimes, people don't get the joke. When that happens, the newspaper gets a black eye and communities get stirred up - just ask the Evanston (Ill.) Round Table.

Evanston Newspaper Plays April Fools' Joke on Readers:

As media professionals, we can't assume, as the Round Table did, that people will automatically pick up on jokes. Some newspaper readers may not make it all the way to the end of a story, where the joke is revealed (news companies like Gannett train writers with this in mind). In any case, readers expect news stories to be serious and, well, truthful.

I don't have a problem with levity, on April 1 or any other day. Do it in a column on the editorial page, or get creative with a serious story about something comical.

But front pages are serious the other 364 days of the year. On April Fool's Day, editors shouldn't assume their readers share their senses of humor.

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