It used to be that newspapers had the field all to themselves when it came to fake news. April Fools’ Day came once a year, and readers and journalists alike would look forward to pushing the boundaries of parody and bad taste all for a good laugh. The biggest problem of late has been choosing a fake topic fast enough before it is overtaken by real facts – think cloud-seeding over the Peaks and wolves in Flagstaff, and you’ll see what I mean.
But comedians, no strangers to exaggeration, began to appropriate the fake news niche. Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and Seth Meyers on Saturday Night Live perfected the three-sentence news brief that made news of the world into news of the weird and illogically logical.
Then came the journalists who tried to pass off fabricated news as real news, much to their shame and that of the profession. Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass are just three on a growing list of those who have damaged our credibility in general.
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Worst of all, though, may be the journalism that means to get it right but instead gets it all wrong. The New York Times and its all-too-credulous cheerleading for the Iraq invasion leads the list, but the recent meltdown of the Rolling Stone UVA rape story ranks right up there, too. A breakdown in sourcing and fact-checking of that magnitude when the stakes are that high and the issue that sensitive can’t help but prompt readers everywhere to question professional integrity and ethics.
So in the weeks since April 1 and the Rolling Stone revelations a week later, I’ve had more than a few people ask me whether it’s time for the Daily Sun to give up its April Fools’ Day story for the sake of newspaper credibility in general. The reactions this year by the gullible and the guffawing seemed fairly consistent, but the wider world in which journalists operate filters down to Flagstaff with the click of a mouse. It’s already tough enough for readers to navigate the digital news minefield for trustworthy sources without having their hometown newspaper twist the facts – even in jest.
On the other hand, many have sensed that the pressure is on the profession to play it straight 365 days a year, and they have gone out of their way to urge me to carry on the April Fools’ Day tradition. I take that as a sign of trust in the Daily Sun’s judgment and the relationships we have built with readers over the years -- including on April 1. And because I believe that cultivating a sense of humor is a pathway to good health, I’m inclined to carry on – unless that Rolling Stone gathers so much momentum that taking a timeout is the only way to stop it.