Guest post: How to fool readers on April Fools’ Day

by andybechtel

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the latest of those posts. Jamie Richardson is a senior journalism major in the news-editorial sequence. She has served on The Daily Tar Heel’s university desk and as a sports writing intern for the Durham Bulls baseball team. She will attend Campbell Law School in August.

On April 1, several college newspapers were littered with fake April Fools’ Day stories that fooled and entertained their readers. But the methods in which these newspapers presented their pranks question what is acceptable.

Many college newspapers don’t depend on revenue and are not corporately owned, and they have more leeway in their decision-making. Literally fooling readers hurts any newspaper’s credibility, but it’s also important for college newspapers not to take themselves too seriously all the time. It’s undeniably difficult for college newspapers to walk the line between what is funny and what is inappropriate for publication.

April Fools’ Day stories should exaggerate an issue; the humor should obviously remind readers of this lighthearted holiday of sorts. Most readers don’t enjoy being fooled, and when readers unintentionally fall for a fake story, they complain. Writers and editors should ensure that if a story (even an exaggerated one) is taken literally, it does not make a believable accusation against any person or organization. Complaints also happen when a paper uses an individual, company or organization by name, especially when newspapers aim to cover these subjects objectively every day.

An effective example of foolery is the April 1 edition of The Daily Free Press at Boston University. Although not featured on the paper’s Web site, this edition was a Harry Potter-themed issue titled “The Daily Free Prophet.” This is a perfect example of exaggeration that immediately makes readers aware they are not reading real news.

The Daily Gazette of Swarthmore College also took part in April Fools’ Day appropriately with its article “Swarthmore admits five Na’vi for Class of 2014.” The headline immediately clues in the reader to the story’s falsity (props to the copy editors) before they even begin reading the story.

Santa Clara University’s weekly publication, The Santa Clara, successfully fooled some readers, and it was not well received. Its entire front page contained fake articles announcing the return of football to the university (which was discontinued in 1993 because of budget cuts), the abolishment of same-sex roommate requirements and the banning of skateboards on campus. There was no direct mention of April Fools’ Day on the front page, but when readers turned to the second page, they saw that stories “may lack accuracy in honor of April Fools’ Day.” This front page was formatted and designed to look real, and although the author of the fictional football story was Ferris Bueller, some readers were caught off guard and complained.

The Daily Tar Heel at UNC-Chapel Hill approached its readers differently, with a gag not as obvious as some others, and published a fake editorial on the back page. And just in case readers didn’t get the joke upon reading it, the editorial concluded with “Editor’s Note: April Fools. This one is fake, in case you didn’t guess. The others are real, though!” This joke addressed the reader directly to avoid misinterpretation, didn’t mention any individuals by name, and effectively exaggerated an issue with just a hint of humor.

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