It's a college tradition, sure. But maybe it's a college tradition whose time has come and gone.
Each year on April 1, many student newspapers publish April Fools' Day parody editions with made-up news that mocks university administrators and student government officials and makes light of pressing campus issues. It can trick a number of freshmen, but by senior year pretty much everybody is in on the joke.
But this year a number of these editions went terribly wrong, offending readers and ultimately forcing three student editors out of their jobs. The ill-fated attempts at humor used derogatory language, made light of sexual assault and affronted an entire people.
Jim Romenesko spotlighted these controversies on his popular media-news aggregation site JimRomenesko.com. He says the problem in many instances is that the papers aren't conveying their messages very clearly to their readers.
"Sometimes what they think is funny to themselves is not funny at all to people outside of their campus newsroom, and it's too late for them to discover that," he says.
Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, has little use for April Fools' Day issues. "April Fools' Day is one of the stupidest fake holidays ever created, and I've never seen an April Fools' Day issue of anything that was any good," he says. "Even in the best of hands, the satire turns out to be pretty lame. And in the worst hands, we get these totally unnecessary scandals like the ones we've seen."
Clark, who has a Ph.D. in medieval literature, compares April Fools' Day to holidays like Mardi Gras and the ancient days of misrule, on which strictly traditional Christian societies in the Middle Ages deemed it permissible to break the rules.
"There's a long tradition of this, but in a sense, our culture is besotted with those kinds of events," Clark says. "There's misrule everywhere we look. It's almost that misrule has become the norm, and so if that's the case, then no wonder April Fools' sections and features just go off the tracks."
College newspapers have no monopoly on the April Fools' franchise. Over the years, a number of professional news outlets have engaged in similar antics. For example, in the late 1980s, Georgia's Columbus Ledger-Enquirer fooled readers into believing a prehistoric sea monster was in the local river. It was called the slooflirpa — April Fools spelled backwards. In 1992, NPR's "Talk of the Nation" "reported" that disgraced former President Richard M. Nixon was mounting a comeback. Hundreds of outraged listeners called to register their protest.
April Fools' editions have misfired badly in the past. But, Romenesko says, the fallout today is exacerbated by the advent of the Internet and social media. When news outlets screw up, "The disgrace goes worldwide, and not just in a couple mile radius around campus," he says. "Humor is a really tricky thing, and humor, if it's done badly, will be criticized. "
Romenesko thinks it may well be time for student journalists to jettison those April Fools' issues. "If feature columnists want to do lighthearted pieces..that's fine, but the idea of using your news columns for jokey news items is bad," he says. "Leave the funny stuff to The Onion."
At Rutgers University, the Medium, a satirical paper, published an April Fools' article titled "What about the good things Hitler did?" under the byline of a student columnist at the campus daily who often writes pro-Israel articles. Boston University's Daily Free Press made light of rape and sexual assault in a Disney-themed issue, released on April 2 since April Fools' Day fell on a Sunday this year. The Maneater at the University of Missouri replaced its nameplate with "Carpeteater," a derogatory term used to refer to lesbians.
Aaron Marcus, the Rutgers student whose byline was used without his permission on the "What about the good things Hitler did?" says he doesn't buy the paper's explanation that this was a lighthearted April Fools' Day trick. Rather, he says, it was meant to damage his reputation.
Marcus is a columnist for the Daily Targum known for his pro-Israel articles and conservative stances on campus issues. He says the article was offensive because it included severe anti-Semitic slurs and suggested that people think about Hitler when they think about Israel or walk by the Rutgers Hillel.
"Their claim is that it was intended to be funny, but you know, from 90 percent of the people I've spoken to, no one's found it funny," Marcus says. "I didn't find it funny. I found it completely offensive."
Amy DiMaria, the Medium's editor-in-chief, says she did not expect the article to trigger so much controversy. She says the paper's April Fools' issue is always a parody of the Daily Targum, and that each year, a columnist is spotlighted.
"The article was him saying about what about the good things Hitler did, because he tends to take some pretty unpopular opinion pieces," DiMaria says. "It was more about having someone who does unpopular things take the most unpopular opinion and write about that. Just an extreme."
Marcus says that while he appreciates constructive criticism, he feels this was an "anti-Semitic diatribe that..goes beyond humor and parody." Instead of changing his name or altering his photo, the Medium simply modeled the article after one of Marcus' real columns for the Daily Targum. He says if it had made those alterations, while the article would still have been a "bad thing to publish," it would have been perceived as a parody.
Marcus says the paper's action was akin to stealing his identity.
DiMaria counters that it was simply a joke. While she acknowledges that the topic was probably in poor taste, she says she believes in the paper's right to be satirical, since that, after all, is what it does.
"I think it kind of got blown out in the media just from Aaron Marcus being very much a politician," DiMaria says. "If it had been anyone else, it wouldn't have been as big of a deal, but I still stand by it."
In response, Marcus has filed a bias report with the university against the Medium, which receives funding from student activities fees. The Daily Targum, like many campus daily publications, doesn't receive state funding.
DiMaria is still editor-in-chief of the Medium. But editors at other papers with April Fools' fiascos weren't so lucky. Chelsea Diana, editor-in-chief of the Boston Daily Free Press at Boston University, and Abby Spudich, managing editor at the Maneater at the University of Missouri, both lost their jobs.
In the Boston University incident, the newspaper changed its name to the Disney Free Press in a joke issue that made light of sexual assault. Cinderella was alleged to be part of a prostitution ring; Alice, as in Alice in Wonderland, was portrayed as a victim of a fraternity brother's LSD; Snow White's dwarfs were accused of gang raping a BU female.
The articles elicited particularly strong condemnation from the campus community because of recent events at the school, in which two hockey players were accused of sexual assault.
In response to the ensuing furor, the paper's board of directors asked Diana to step down, and she did. In her letter of resignation, Diana wrote, "Our decisions were juvenile and insensitive. We deeply regret our heartless behavior and did not mean to personally offend anyone." She added, "We understand that these serious issues should not have been characterized as joking matters."
In the University of Missouri episode, the campus paper the Maneater rebranded itself for a day as the Carpeteater, an offensive term referring to lesbians. The issue also used other terms offensive to women.
University of Missouri Chancellor Brady Deaton wrote that the April Fools' issue was "filled with articles that were thoughtless, disrespectful and hurtful to many in our community."
Managing Editor Spudich stepped down, saying that doing so "breaks my heart, but I feel it's what's best for the paper." Editor-in-Chief Travis Cornejo also resigned, even though he played no part in planning the ill-conceived issue.
Because of the backlash, the Maneater editorial board decided to cancel next year's April Fools' issue. The board said in an editorial, "We have learned through this process the risk of offending our readers and sources outweighs any potential reward."
While Rutgers' Marcus says he's not against April Fools' editions, he thinks it's important to make sure that they are funny, not hurtful. One university newspaper that has tried to do what Marcus suggests is the Crimson White at the University of Alabama.
Victor Luckerson, the paper's editor-in-chief for the past two years, says he consulted professors about how to speak about public figures in a satirical way without doing damage. The Crimson White also runs checks on the fake names they use in April Fools' stories to make sure they aren't unintentionally naming actual students.
"It kind of seems like they were trying too hard to get people's attention or be controversial on purpose," Luckerson says of the ill-fated stories at other campus papers. "Most of our stories are based on what's going on on campus right now. That's funny enough."
Luckerson says he supports student papers that want to publish April Fools' editions because of the enjoyment they bring. "It gives [the student body] an opportunity to engage with the newspaper staff in a different way," he says. "I think it can be really good for brand awareness if done properly."
Poynter's Clark, though, says it would make more sense to spread out the mirth rather than focus it all on one particular day. "Why wait until April Fools' Day?" he asks. "Why not develop some effective satire and humor features or columns throughout the year? This way, at least, you can have more confidence in having writers and editors with more experience handling this material."
At the University of Maryland, the campus daily newspaper, the Diamondback, has had an April Fools' Day issue in many recent years. This year, though, because April 1 fell on a Sunday, when the paper doesn't publish, Editor-in-Chief Lauren Redding decided against doing one.
"My editors were really pushing to have one on Monday, but I felt like then it's no joke―it's just libel," Redding says.
She says that in past years, the April Fools' issue has been a highlight for a number of upperclassmen, who look forward to skewering university administrators and student government members. But the fun and games are not without risks.
"There's definitely something to worry about, because these are your sources, and you're going to them every day for information," Redding says. "If you're going to piss them off, you better make sure it's for a good reason."
Redding says students should learn from the recent flurry of controversies.
"I would like to see the tradition continuing, but the examples this year showed everyone how carefully you have to take it," she says. "To ask yourself whether the jokes you want to make, whether that punch line, is worth your credibility for the rest of the year."