Fake news cries wolf
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The well-known satirical news source The Onion pushed its limits this past week, publishing on its website and Twitter feed stories of children kidnapped by congressmen. The original tweet, posted the morning of Sept. 29, simply said, “BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building.”
Though people who follow The Onion know the stories are published for entertainment purposes, this story idea may have gone too far. Stories of disturbance in U.S. government buildings are usually not taken lightly by officials or the public, especially a day after a threat of attack by terrorists using model airplanes.
True, The Onion is protected by the First Amendment, but just because a story can legally be published doesn’t mean it’s ethical or amusing to do so. This goes back to the general rule of not shouting fire in a crowded theater.
The Capitol is on guard already against any possible threats, and tweeting a line about an attack there could potentially cause chaos for anyone previously unaware of The Onion’s status as a satirical tease.
Possibly the best example of chaos spreading due to a false journalistic broadcast was Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, which was broadcast over the radio just before Halloween night in 1938.
The story of aliens invading earth was read like a news broadcast, and though completely fictional, caused some listeners to believe the events were actually happening.
Were congressmen holding children hostage? No, but did The Onion have to resort to tweets like, “Obama: ‘I know this Congress well. Trust me, they will kill these kids’” to get the response they desired?
It seems some of their followers didn’t think so and didn’t find the story humorous or appropriate. One Twitter follower, Joseph Gonzales, tweeted back at The Onion saying “There’s nothing about killing kids that’s amusing. This whole series of tweets today is irresponsible.”
Journalistic ethics and credibility are always questioned by the public, but especially when cases like this come up. The Onion is a satirical news source, but it looks and operates much like a real news source. Will its less than amusing story have wider implications beyond those mentioned?
It will be interesting to see what comes out of this situation. Legally they are protected by the First Amendment. And even though specific individuals were mentioned, such as President Obama and Speaker Boehner, they are public officials and would most likely lose if they chose to sue The Onion.
Maybe the story and tweets were a clear example of stories that were intended to be funny and weren’t received as well as the publishers would have anticipated.
Or maybe the story was a sign of the type of humor Americans find effective. Some people expressed clear disgust toward the story, but others really enjoyed the continuous stream of tweets, finding enjoyment in poking fun at major national public officials.
Whether it made people laugh or not, The Onion went too far with this one and gives a good example of why the general rule of not yelling fire in a crowded theater is respected by most professional news sources.