Why newsrooms should leave the fooling to someone else on April Fools’ Day
When does an April Fools joke go too far?
For most news outlets, it comes when anyone is starting to take them too seriously. And that includes non-humans, including the spiders over at Google.
Even in college, April Fools editions or joke stories had no place in our newsroom at Central Michigan Life. We’d create a mock front page and post it in the newsroom, play tricks on each other (I came into the office to find an envelope with an “internship offer” from the Detroit Free Press my sophomore year. Unfortunately for me, that proved false), but we never published April Fools stories or editions.
I’ve carried that same thought into the professional realm. I’m happy we at Heritage Media didn’t go along that path, although we did have reporters dress in goofy outfits last year for our daily newscast video for April 1.
But news organizations did, and the results can be terrifying. Take for instance the small publication The Ontario County
Line, located in Wisconsin. The paper ran a piece on March 29 about how Disney was buying a state park in the area from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The newspaper received such a backlash, it forced the Wisconsin DNR to issue a statement because the news had gone viral across the state via radio and other media.
And that’s not the only Disney-related prank a publication ran with this week. The Daily Free Press at Boston University ran a front page Monday renaming their paper “The Disney Free Press” and lacing the front page with stories of rape of classical Disney characters.
Reading horror stories like the ones above (especially about the Boston University paper) give me the chills. How can any joke be made in a news product when your credibility is all you have? Especially at a time when trust in the news media is low, budgets are being cut for a lack of advertisers and events like this are happening.
It’s all best summed up in a tweet sent by NYU professor Jay Rosen earlier this week:
Newsrooms that, thinking themselves clever, publish fake stories on April 1 have no idea what they are screwing with. Staggeringly bad idea.
— Jay Rosen(@jayrosen_nyu) April 2, 2012
Some organizations can get away with April Fools jokes. Google, for instance, is well-known for its puns on April 1. Last year, the fine folks at Google introduced Gmail Motion, a funny idea that allowed users to make motions to send email. Lo and behold, one group decided to create the system and it worked.
Others have jumped into the spirit, too. My local NFL team, the Detroit Lions, went so far as to announce an all-male cheerleading squad for the playoff team, which has no cheerleaders at all (Apparently, though, the move ruffled the feathers of at least one Metro Detroit cheerleading group, however).
But Google makes its money on its search service, not its news-reporting service. It’s in the technology business, not the news business. Same thing with the Lions: they’re in the professional sports business; the entire reason the organization exists is for entertainment.
But for many news organizations, especially smaller ones, the reporting is all they have to keep themselves afloat in the shark-infested waters that exist today.
Why would anyone want to jeopardize that?