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.