April Fools' Day and the Credibility War
It's a war every April Fools' Day.
From bacon mouth wash to glass bottom jets to Google shutting down YouTube, the forces of merriment try to trick the media into swallowing all sorts of bogus tales. That's what makes the holiday irksome for news management colonels like me. We have to remind our staffs to be particularly vigilant, or risk having to hang a very public "loser" sign around our necks.
You see, to some of us news is sacred. Yes, there are efforts to sex it up. Some outfits also like to push certain angles and points of view. But by and large most of us in this business understand the need to get the facts right and report what we believe to be true. Misinformation is the enemy. Credibility is our fortress. And April Fools' Day is the yearly siege.
In the latest round of battle, there were two breaches.
One was a news story from TechCrunch proclaiming that Facebook was going to buy the app outfit "Bang With Friends" for $30 million. While there's running debate about BWF's validity in the first place, the dead giveaway appeared in the article's third paragraph, which declared "robust staff penetration and rumors that Google is building a competitive hook-up platform called Google F*ck Now also hastened the deal."
The second incursion was a story from Edmunds.com about Tesla entering the Nascar race circuit. It, too, had some giveaways in the copy, not the least of which was the sponsorship of Duracell and the need for the Tesla car to play recorded Chevy Charger revving sounds to satisfy Nascar crowds.
Both pieces were lighthearted, fun, and well-executed. The problem is where they were coming from…two websites that have strived, and succeeded to a certain degree, to be recognized sources of legitimate news.
It's dangerous to mix credibility and pranking for a couple of reasons. One, some folks may believe the joke to their detriment. That's why more traditional media outfits, when they do play a joke, tend to admit it's a joke right away. But for Internet journalism, such a prank can be particularly detrimental. It took a while for the Internet to gain recognition as a bona fide journalistic platform. Like any other media platform, it's the source that counts. When generally reputable sites such as TechCrunch and Edmunds blur the line, it doesn't help the cause.
In the war of April Fools' Day, the sides should be clear. Unfortunately, in this Internet age, like many other things, the line gets blurred.