Student guest post: UVa newspaper shows limits of ‘satire’

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Nick Niedzwiadek is a junior from Latham, New York, majoring in journalism and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. Like Jerry Seinfeld, he too transferred from SUNY Oswego.

It’s hard to be funny.

News organizations, which typically pride themselves on directness and objectivity, are particularly vulnerable to underestimating humor’s difficulty. Journalists can be tempted to show they don’t take themselves too seriously, but The Cavalier Daily showed how easy it is for satire to go too far and be offensive.

The University of Virginia’s student newspaper featured an April Fools’ Day story called “ABC agents tackle Native American student outside Bodo’s Bagels.” Not only was it reminiscent of the events that led to black UVa student Martese Johnson’s violent arrest earlier this month, the subhead “Students decry ‘Trail of Schmears’” offended Native Americans. The Cavalier Daily also ran an article titled “Zeta Psi hosts ‘Rosa Parks’ party.”

The backlash against the story resulted in the articles being removed from the newspaper’s website, and it quickly posted an apology.

The Cavalier Daily could have learned a lesson from N.C. State’s student newspaper, Technician, which ended its spoof edition in 2013. The Daily Tar Hell was typically published when N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill squared off in men’s basketball, and it copied the style of UNC’s paper, The Daily Tar Heel. The editor who ended the tradition, Sam DeGrave — perhaps prophetically — wrote that he did it because “the humor, if you can call it that, which the editions relied on was sexist, racist and most commonly homophobic.”

While these faux-newspapers are only meant to be light-hearted college hijinks, they often cross the line between pointedly funny and offensive — something even professional comedians can struggle with. Very few people fully appreciate the amount of time and thoughtfulness that goes into articles on The Onion, or even The Minor — which did a better job of ribbing UNC than Technician ever did.

An editor’s job is to uphold and protect the organization from embarrassing mistakes, even it leads to unpopular decisions like DeGrave’s. Besides, truth can be stranger than fiction anyway: The same day as The Cavalier Daily’s stories, The Daily Tar Heel’s front page included stories about the university possibly buying a porn domain name and a whistleblower lawsuit involving a sex-for-hire scheme in the housekeeping department. Both were real stories that didn’t have much trouble getting attention in print or online.