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​KELLY: A line not worth treading

The April Fools’ issue of The Cavalier Daily demonstrates that newspapers shouldn’t try satire

Humor is a subtle art, satire even more so; a tricky combination of comedy and discerning commentary, it is an art form that pushes the boundaries of civility in order to grasp something insightful about the human condition. At the edge of that boundary lies the realm of the offensive and the demeaning. Comedians tread that boundary with surpassing caution; those who relish in testing its limits do so in public settings in which they can react to an audience in real time. As professionals at the apex of their line of work, these individuals can feel comfortable in pushing the envelope; should an audience react to an insensitive racial or ethnic joke, the blow is softened both by a comedian’s explanation and by the very nature of the position which he or she occupies. Why then, one might ask, do college newspapers take the risk of treading this line? Though individuals can sensibly disagree over the proper place of satire in college newspapers, the sort of first-of-April media mischief displayed Wednesday was damaging to the bonds between The Cavalier Daily, as a news organization, and its constituency. Ostensibly geared toward relieving the strain of this semester, Wednesday’s articles instead incited anger and frustration. While the right to publish such material may be irrefutable, there is little wisdom in doing so.

When I sat down to read the articles which appeared last Wednesday in The Cavalier Daily, I was as surprised as anyone. What immediately struck me was the choice of subject matter in the two controversial articles that have since been retracted and apologized for publicly. The Cavalier Daily was not the first student newspaper to face backlash for insensitive material published within the pages of its April Fools Edition, nor will it be the last, but I could not help but feel a sense of dismay when I saw the headlines in question – even Louis C.K. wouldn’t dream of approaching such sensitive issues. In the end, what I read was cringeworthy and plainly offensive to both black and Native American members of our community, especially in light of the highly charged atmosphere created by Martese Johnson’s arrest.

Of course, readers were aware of the satirical nature of this content and though there is something to be said for being receptive to the author’s intent at humor (however imprudent) and not assuming malicious intent, satire can be offensive nonetheless. While I sincerely do not believe the authors intended to be disparaging, the underlying idea that the subject matter itself would be suitable for a “funny” article or two was a sorely misguided assumption with unintended consequences. The world’s best comedians are sometimes able to overcome the strong discomfort associated with the issues in question and attain some level of cleverness; it is a tall order to ask college students writing under a deadline to do the same.

At its best the April Fools’ issue can be a welcome distraction for students, ideally when the material itself is patently absurd; last year’s issue, in my mind, serves as a worthy example — its cover story “Student self-governance laid to rest” was an objectively strong sample of satirical writing. Though most of this year’s material was similarly humorous, the idea of having a satirical issue designed to start a conversation is inherently dangerous to the relationship of trust that news organizations everywhere seek to build with readers. Yes, it’s an April Fools’ issue and those who take the absurd for being true cannot be helped, but when attempts at satire invariably cross the border into wildly insensitive territory, something invaluable is lost in the process. Journalism, especially at the collegiate level, has had a rocky history with April Fools’ content — take the Apr. 1, 2012 issue of “The Ram” at Fordham University, which included an insensitive article about Jewish students, for example. The journalistic tradition of pranking news consumers on April Fools’ Day goes back to the early 20th century, but that tradition has been rooted in a common understanding that satirizing controversial issues was not the proper place of journalism, even on a day devoted to jokes. Issues of the sort that the University has being grappling with this semester are by no means well-suited for the satirical form.

Noted media scholar Jane E. Kirtley of the University of Minnesota offers what I think to be an apt conclusion: “If you knowingly set out to trick or deceive your audience, there is the inevitable question of whether you will do it again. . . Credibility should not be endangered lightly.” Continuing on, she also argues, “If you are going to do it [publish April Fools’ content], it had better be good. You want your readers to laugh with you, not feel as if you are making fun of them.” Since this will always be an exceedingly difficult line to tread, though one that writers never wish to cross, April Fools’ content has no appropriate place in a news organization of any kind. Lastly, I would encourage the entire student body to take pause and step back: we are all on the same team; whatever surely unintentional mistakes were made yesterday, we would be truly foolish if we were to presume any malicious intent whatsoever in this case. All the same, placing April Fools’ content in a newspaper is an intrinsically injudicious idea.

Conor Kelly is an Opinion editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at c.kelly@cavalierdaily.com.

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