Editors Ain't Smart

May 3rd, 2007
Don't believe everything you read on the Web.

When the Brown Daily Herald posted a phony April 4 story about a new speech code banning, of all things, meanness, it was intended as a belated April Fool's prank. But when a national wire service fell for the joke, the hoax spun out of control.

A correspondent for the Campus group of Tribune Media Services (TMS), a news-syndication company, found the story on the BDH Web site, according to TMS Campus editor Marco Bucaglia, and then rewrote the fake story as his own. TMS Campus circulated it as fact to its student-newspaper subscribers, and before long, six newspapers had downloaded the shocking news about Brown's "speech code." Though Bucaglia says TMS Campus pulled the story within a few hours and e-mailed all subscribers, the news appeared in at least a couple of student newspapers.

Bucaglia argues the item was believable because it trod too close to reality - which may say something about the stereotype many editors have about Brown. In the BDH story, absurd statements such as "The First Amendment was created under extenuating circumstances of total freedom" are attributed to Brown administrators. The editorial about the "news story" was even more farfetched: headlined "Everyone Talk Good," it stated: "Free speech is a real-world phenomenon, and for our time at Brown, we should push back the real world as much as possible." Another story in the April Fool's issue was headlined "NBC's Providence to move to Nashville."

"The idea," says BDH editor-in-chief Greg Cooper '01, "is to fool people for about five minutes." But Bucaglia faults the BDH for not immediately posting a disclaimer on its Web site. The print edition included one, but Cooper says the Web disclaimer was only added later.

"Maybe," Cooper says, "we had too much faith in the people reading the paper."

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Related Issue
July / August 2000