Friday, April 01, 2011

April Fool - did NPR subtly blow it

I love a good April Fool's joke as much as the next person - probably more so, which is dangerous because I tend to do things like spring a "pop" quiz on my 8 a.m. editing class on days like today, putting my life and limb in danger when the truth comes out.

But I think NPR's attempt at one today missed the mark.

The premise of the story "Advances in 3D may mean no ridiculous glasses" is that a San Diego doctor has developed experimental surgery that enables one to see in 3D natively. Of course, there's a minor complication of regular vision blurring - but they have lenses for that!

Now, I trust it was an April Fool story. If not, I am reminded of the line that those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad, because this would be madness.

The problem, to my mind, and why it makes an interesting ethics discussion for classes, is that it was NPR and it was done in the traditional dead-pan NPR way - complete with audio clip from "Avatar," supposed entertainment industry expert, the doctor and the woman who had the surgery. All the names were entirely plausible, etc.

There is some hint this may be a put on with this tag line by the announcer after the reporter's close: Dr. Marsh and his team hope for a wider release of the procedure in select cities starting April 1st, 2012.

Oh, stop being a wet blanket, Doug.

But let's dissect this a bit.

Parody pieces are fun, and lord knows we should have a lot more fun in this business. But parody is like sprinkling a few dynamite sticks among the fireworks on July Fourth - light the right fuses and the display is spectacular. Get careless and the results get messy.

To do effective parody you have to match tone and content to your audience and your reputation, and you have to understand the situation under which it will be consumed. This is where I think NPR went wrong and what could make for some interesting at your next journalism ethics class.

  • Your established tone and reputation determine how obvious you have to be. Were we to read this in the Onion, there'd be no problem. We know we're getting parody and satire for our efforts. But this was just dropped into NPR's "Morning Edition" lineup with no particular difference. Is  a sly reference to "April 1, 2012" at the end enough/
  • We exist in an era of Botox and "Nip and Tuck." What once might have been thought of as outrageous plastic surgery no longer is.
  • We also live in an era where 3D is becoming commonplace.
  • The piece itself is likely to be consumed "on the fly" while people are driving to work, rushing to get the kids to school, etc. That sly little reference at the end is likely to be missed. (And online, there's not any additional hint.)

Finally, there is subject matter. Again, unless you are The Onion, I think people's health and safety are subjects you should just generally avoid making fun with. They are almost guaranteed to get the wrong reaction.

So you have an entire plausible situation dealing with people's health being consumed on the fly without very clear indicators it is parody on a channel known for its seriousness. I think that's a formula for "messy."

Most of these things I've seen go wrong (and college newspapers are a litany of parody gone horribly wrong) involve that failure to step back and look at subject matter, publication's reputation and situation of consumption - and then failing to incorporate the proper signals. NPR's could have worked, even had the announcer said something like "and happy April Fool" at the end.

One of the best parodies I've ever seen or heard was 40 or so years ago on WCBS-TV news in New York - the disappearance of the gefilte fish from the lakes and streams of New York.

There is no such thing as a gefilte fish, of course. Gefilte fish is a chopped-fish dish common to Jewish menus. This would not work in Dallas, or Columbia, where your local megafood might have a few jars tucked away behind the pickles. In New York, of course, where food stores devote feet of space to such items, it makes perfect sense.

And while you might argue that joking about people's food is an invitation to trouble as well, in the WCBS case, the product was so well-known for what it was that there was less chance of misinterpretation. And the reporter had the sense to tag the piece - after giving the standard lockout - "and happy April Fool's."

Parody should be pursued with care. It should always be looked at from 10,000 feet. If it still works, go for it. Just make sure it is clear.

Feel free to disagree with me.

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At 4/1/11, 11:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have not heard this story. I thought their April Fools' Day story on Morning Edition was the one about the French ennui survey.

At 4/1/11, 11:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I should clarify my post- this story appeared in the Market Place Money Morning Report segment.

At 4/1/11, 12:27 PM, Blogger Dan B said...

I disagree. It was everything a good news story parody should be.

At 4/1/11, 12:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard the story on my way to work and knew immediately that it was an April Fool's joke. You're underestimating the intelligence of the audience. Besides, since the surgery doesn't really exist, who would be hurt by this story? I thought it was very clever and very funny.

At 4/1/11, 12:35 PM, Blogger James said...

The fault lies with the audience: We NPR listeners have too much reverence for the stories delivereed with such seemingobjectivity andprofessionalism. If this had come via Fox or even CNN, we would have got the joke. All media should be viewed with a certain skeptical humor.

At 4/1/11, 1:51 PM, Anonymous Ron Antonette said...

Sorry ... you missed this one, Doug. Great, great parody today!

"It's pretty well established that 3-D is the future." Awesome!

But I still respect your opinions about copy-editing.

At 4/1/11, 3:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I actually don't like being fooled; or lied to. My reaction to getting this from Public Radio is negative every year - and surprisingly emotion-laden.

At 4/1/11, 3:59 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Did anyone catch the story on Marketplace (I think) about the French government studying ennui by tracking workers who google search "nihilism" and play a french game called "solitaire(add french accent)"? Gotta be fake right?

At 4/1/11, 4:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've listened to NPR for years. This is a tradition I look forward to every year on April 1st. It's for fun and sometimes the real stories are more unbelievable than the joke. I particularly like the story one year on eating compost as the ultimate earth friendly vegan diet.

At 4/1/11, 5:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Getting surgery to watch 3D movies seems pretty ridiculous, but I live in Southern California where people have surgery for ridiculous reasons all the time. Pec implants, anyone? Inject poison (Botox) in your skin to prevent wrinkles? How 'bout a nipple ring?

I don't think this report really endangered anyone's health, but the it isn't funny until you realize it's a joke. And it's not obvious that it's a joke unless you listen to it carefully.

The problem is that there's a lot of people like me who are sort of half-listening while driving. I was totally taken in by the story, but I was also not trying hit anyone as I changed lanes. I didn't hear the part about April 1, 2012. It wasn't until later that someone mentioned the story that I discovered it was a joke.

At 4/1/11, 7:55 PM, Blogger tbyrd said...

3D eyes, and Slow dial-up Movement... I'm sure I missed a bunch of other stories today too... LOL NPR!

At 4/1/11, 8:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Doug,

your pop quiz prank is so lame that you must be jealous of NPR's legitimately funny April Fool's story. I seriously hope that this BORING entry of yours is your actual prank.

At 4/1/11, 8:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lighten up, Doug. NPR aced it.

At 4/1/11, 10:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was a great one about food being engineered to show advertisements on it. A hamburger bun advertising pickles, etc. I caught on early, so it was hilarious, but it was just subtle enough to have fooled people.

At 4/1/11, 10:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The link to the food story I mentioned above

At 4/2/11, 12:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It made me realize it was April 1st...almost believed it for a (milli)second.

At 4/2/11, 7:34 AM, Blogger K said...

Wow. I hope this blog entry was also an April fools joke. If not you are an idiot.

At 4/2/11, 8:12 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Anonymous at 5:01 p.m., makes my point:

I don't think this report really endangered anyone's health, but the it isn't funny until you realize it's a joke. And it's not obvious that it's a joke unless you listen to it carefully. The problem is that there's a lot of people like me who are sort of half-listening while driving. ... It wasn't until later that someone mentioned the story that I discovered it was a joke.

I'm simply suggesting that when doing parody, the situation is important and that combining something health-related with an outlet known for covering such stories with a certain gravitas and broadcasting it to an audience that may otherwise be occupied (driving) is not the best combination. The "April 1st, 2012" tag was insufficient, to my mind.

Agree or disagree with whether it is effective, my overall point is that it is worth stepping back and taking a longer look at such things.

And, yes, I enjoyed the slow dial-up story too. I found myself a little wistfully wondering where I could sign up. {grin}

Note to K at 7:34 a.m.:
Sorry to have become one of your little irksome things
I promise to do better next time.

At 4/2/11, 8:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha! My husband came home and told me about this piece having heard it on his drive to work. Having missed that, I was certain that the piece on the 'slow internet' movement (made even more hysterical by Alice Waters' comments on the subject) was their April Fools' parody. Meanwhile, I think that if you're going to be so curmudgeonly about NPR's funny little story of 3D vision correction, you might want to first correct your own piece. "But parody is like sprinkling a few dynamite among the fireworks on July Fourth - light the right fuses and the display is spectacular. " What's a "few dynamite"?

At 4/2/11, 8:33 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Thanks for the editing help. I can always use an extra set of eyes.

I'll disagree on your characterization of curmudgeonly. I hardly think this critique is bad-tempered or surly. It's an attempt to have a reasoned, thought-out discussion. Throwing about ill-advised labels does little to contribute to the conversation.

At 4/2/11, 6:05 PM, Blogger Peter Smyth said...

Their best was maybe 2005: the Exploding Maples story. It caught a lot of people in the first part.

At 4/2/11, 6:19 PM, Blogger Peter Smyth said...

And this is less parody, but more unique - an April Fools prank. NPR is the only network capable of doing this. On any other, it would seem right in place with many of the other stories and would prably be quoted as truth on other networks. It's actually the dead pan that gives it away.

At 4/3/11, 1:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best part of April Fool's is the "get". My husband was telling me about the "new 3D eye surgery" today and was going on about how ridiculous it was that the woman who had the procedure could only talk about how great "Gnomeo and Juliet" was without the glasses... I immediately recognized the April Fool and was laughing my @$$ off. Kudos NPR for "getting" my husband, and anyone else gullible enough to believe it!

At 4/3/11, 7:35 AM, Blogger Exist-Dissolve said...

I think it's great when the April Fool's stories are plausible--only if the person isn't listening closely. It gives those of us who "got" the joke a pretty nice laugh at the expense of friends, co-workers, and family members who didn't "get" it and are shocked by the stories that they heard.

Personally, I thought the fake stories that I heard on Friday were pretty freakin' hilarious, and it was even funnier to hear people around me discuss them as if they were true :)

At 4/4/11, 11:33 AM, Blogger stephen.geary said...

NPR got me on both Stories. I have been listening for 30 years and I look forward every year to NPR April fools. I woke up in bed at 1am Sun morning and it hit me!!. Great entertainment!

At 4/4/11, 3:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Doug Fisher makes some excellent points but I believe he's overthinking it, and then, of course, the humor is completely drained from the parody piece.

One of the best April Fool's jokes that I heard on NPR was quite a few years ago....about how maple trees in the Northeastern U.S. must be regularly drained of sap in the fall to prevent the trees from exploding. In the piece, they talked about early settlers severely injured by exploding sap in maple trees. The sound effects (explosions, voices, screams) were hilarious.

At 4/4/11, 7:44 PM, Blogger Luis said...

Really, it was set up and executed perfectly!

"To do effective parody you have to match tone and content to your audience and your reputation, and you have to understand the situation under which it will be consumed. This is where I think NPR went wrong"

Your blog says that effective parody must match the tone and content to your audience and reputation, which is why the joke was so effective, because they absolutely did.

There were other clues within the story, such as the woman's bite about how this has been "life changing" (the ability to see 3D without glasses?) And the doctor saying that he's going to create glasses for people who have had the implants so they can see real life normally. Come on, who could take those comments seriously?

I'm glad they didn't tag the story with "April Fools!" as it I don't think it was at all necessary and was more fun to not have it.

At 4/10/11, 11:18 PM, Anonymous John McPherson said...

I am in complete agreement with you, and probably more harsh. In my more than 20 years of journalism, every newsroom in which I ever worked strictly forbade the airing of hoax stories. For a network under seige by critic who claim they are not a legitimate news organization it's just plain 'foolish.' What if during the next pledge drive we all sent in bogus checks? After all, it's only a joke...

I have linked to your blog post.

At 4/1/12, 11:15 AM, Anonymous Flori Schutzer said...

Really? Get a sense of humor! I came across your post this morning looking for a list of past NPR parodies. They are always good. As was the Gefilte fish story and another that was shown on the Jack Parr show around that same time about the spaghetti harvest in Italy. About 20 years ago my daughter was working at Starbucks when NPR did a story about the Seattle to NY coffee pipeline complete with an interview of the actual CEO on Starbucks. Her first customer had a $100 bill and she didn't have change. Her customer broke into a fake rant about how Starbucks could build a pipeline but not make change. Everyone was severely amused.

At 4/1/12, 11:24 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I found this morning's on the music transcriber, etc., delightfully charming. I stand by my comments about last year's.


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