April 1 is traditionally a day for practical jokes like changing your friend’s MySpace picture, stuffing the toes of your sibling’s shoes with socks or resetting your roommate’s alarm clock to 5 a.m. Many high school and college newspapers also jump into the act, publishing an April Fools’ Day issue to skewer school policies and poke fun at the news they cover seriously for the other 364 days of the year.
Sometimes, though, the students working on the paper are the only ones who get the joke. Student newspapers have faced suspension, theft, and angry students and professors in response to controversial pieces in April Fools’ issues. Articles with immature humor or questionable taste can reflect poorly on the newspaper long after April 1 ends. However, creating a humorous publication that entertains writers and readers, while not easy, is not impossible.
Easy to mess up
Many schools have a tradition of publishing a joke issue on April Fools’ Day, with stories that stretch the truth. It provides students the opportunity to poke fun at campus events and issues they usually take seriously.
“They’re a lot of fun,” said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center. “I think that [students] recognize it as an opportunity to get away from the day-to-day routine of doing regular news, and that readers also appreciate and have some fun with it.”
ReAnne Utemark, editor in chief of the Washburn Review at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., said that despite problems in the past, she really wanted to put out an April Fools’ issue for 2008.
“I really think that in college papers we have a unique opportunity to not only provide the campus with news but also to provide them with not necessarily a commentary, but a kind of flavor that you can’t necessarily get in professional journalism,” she said.
However, as many student media experts point out, satire and comedy are not as easy as professional comedy writers make them seem. Student journalists spend most of the year writing about factual events, and the one-day leap into comedic writing does not always turn out well. There are several cases of April Fools’ issues that attempted to satirize racism only to come off as racist themselves.
The 2005 April Fools’ edition of the Drew University Acorn caused a campus-wide uproar because it contained a letter to the editor written in a style mocking African-American speech. Offended students at the Madison, N.J., school stole copies of both the April 1 issue and the following week’s, which contained a letter of apology. Two campus meetings between offended students and editors ended in shouting matches, and the university considered instituting a prior review policy. In the end, editors estimated that they lost about $2,700 in printing and advertising costs from the theft.
Students have faced retaliation for inappropriate or offensive April Fools’ issues, with offended students stealing and destroying newspapers and administrators suspending student editors or publication of the paper altogether.Another sort of problem can arise when the humor is immature.
James Tidwell, a professor at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill., noted that many April Fools’ issues are “either lame, or they can’t come up with anything else and put ‘fuck’ in 96-point type.
“Bathroom humor and gratuitous cussing may not bring down the wrath of the campus, but could lose readers’ respect and undermine the paper’s reputation as a trustworthy source of campus news, said Dave Reed, a student media expert and former journalism professor at Eastern Illinois University. “Nothing makes a student newspaper look worse than when you do an April Fools’ edition that makes you look like a bunch of morons,” said Reed.
Tidwell agreed, saying that students often underestimate the amount of effort necessary to create a thoughtful and funny issue and can end up paying for it long after the issue goes to print.”Everyone wants to have fun and that’s fine, but if you have fun and make jokes at the expense of your reputation as a serious journalist, then you’re not doing yourself any favors,” he said.
Satire is hard
Satire is an extremely tricky area for any writer, student or not, said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, a school for professional journalists. Because its goal is to mock existing people or situations, it has the potential to be very funny or a huge headache.
“The problem is that satire is very difficult to do well, and most [students] don’t do a very good job at it,” said Tidwell. Stephen Colbert and the Onion make satire seem effortless.
But McBride warned that satire is an especially touchy and inflammatory form of comedy, even for professional journalists.”Satire is always risky; take it out of its intended audience and it’s certain not to fly,” she said. “And with the Internet, we can always take any piece of information out of its intended audience and deliver it to another audience that will be offended.”
Administrators at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., fired the entire staff of the campus newspaper, the Reporter, over a 2003 April Fools’ issue that contained a satirical sex column that advocated rape. The student editors said they had not realized how inflammatory the column would be and that had they known how it would affect campus, they never would have published it.
Hiestand said that students tend to underestimate the effort that goes into crafting truly effective satire.”They really do need to be thought about and worked on, and have a couple pairs of eyes take a look at it before it goes to press,” he said. “Things that are funny at 2 o’clock one morning aren’t necessarily funny at noon the next day.”
High school vs. college
Students who publish controversial or offensive material in their April Fools’ issues may find themselves defending their content to their fellow students or, in some cases, to their school’s administration.
“I often joke that April 2 is our busiest day of the year at the Student Press Law Center,” said Hiestand. However, what actions administrators may take can differ depending on whether the students involved are in high school or college.
“High school publications could be controlled a lot more by principals and school officials,” said Tidwell, adding that high school students have the added burdens of creating content that is age-appropriate and relatively inoffensive while still being funny.
McBride noted that high school students may face steeper consequences for infractions than their college peers.An Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Stanley v. McGrath directly addressed the issue of satirical issues at public universities.
The Minnesota Daily, student newspaper of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, published a finals week issue in 1979 that lampooned the administration and contained satirical pieces that offended students, administrators and members of the religious community. The Board of Regents, the governing body for the university, attempted to cut funding to the newspaper, and the students took the case to court. The court concluded that cutting the paper’s funding due to its content violated the First Amendment.
Private colleges, however, have a great deal more power to punish student newspapers for offensive or inappropriate content, said Hiestand. A cartoon in the April Fools’ issue of the Tartan at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., sparked student protests and forced the resignation of the editor in chief and managing editor. At the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pa., the vice president of student affairs shut down the paper, locked the editors out of the publication office and refused to allow the paper to publish again until it published a “statement of ethics.”
Hiestand said that though students from private schools face harsher punishments if administrators find the paper offensive or inappropriate, the standards for libel and other legal issues are pretty much the same.
When it comes time to put together an April Fools’ Day issue, there are several things editors can watch for to decrease the likelihood that their humor will backfire. Libel and defamation suits can be a problem with April Fools’ Day issues.
Tidwell, an attorney, said that most libel and defamation suits are based on the claim that a reasonable person who read the story would believe that it is based on actual fact, and taking certain steps can decrease what people would believe is true.Tidwell recommended separating the “joke” stories of the April Fools’ issue from the real news of the regular reporting, whether by labeling the section, changing the name of the paper in the “joke” section to indicate that it is not the “real” paper, or including the satirical and comedic stories as a supplement to the regular newspaper.
“We always tell them to make sure that somehow people can figure out pretty quickly that it’s an April Fools’ edition and intended to be fun, not intended to be taken seriously,” said Reed.
This advice should be applied to online versions of the stories as well. Administrators at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., shut down the newspaper’s Web site temporarily after the university was flooded with calls from alumni and others who had mistaken an April Fools’ story for fact when it showed up on search engines without a disclaimer.
The Michigan Journal, the student newspaper of the University of Michigan at Dearborn, had a similar problem. Editor in Chief Kristina Calvird said that one already-controversial story — which satirized the campus’ many candlelit vigils by describing a fictional candle factory fire — was put on the paper’s Web site and picked up by a local news outlet that mistook it for fact
.In addition to physically separating the humorous stories from rest of the paper, Tidwell said that the subject matter of the stories themselves make a difference. “The more outrageous something is, the less likely you are to get into legal trouble, because the bottom line is for something to be libel, it’s got to be something which a person can reasonably interpret as fact,” he said.
McBride said that because of the risks inherent to satire and the maturity level necessary to get it right, she advised against high school students attempting satire.Reed warned student journalists that although April Fools’ issues take up a great deal of time and energy, they should be sure not to neglect their regular reporting duties.
“Whatever time you put in to try to get out an April Fools’ edition is time you’re not putting into the regular paper and serving your readers by trying to find out what’s going on, and keep them alerted to problems, and things a newspaper is supposed to be doing,” he said.”But,” he added, “they’re great fun when they’re well done.”