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Satire: Easy to confuse when used without context

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sprclogoby Tom Gayda
Aw, satire. So fun and entertaining when done well. How many times have I been taken aback for a second by an Onion headline? More than I care to share! Satire can be very powerful when done with purpose, but satire for the sake of satire often falls flat.

My students are always open to try new things, and I always let the editor make the final decision. A few years ago the newspaper editor suggested a satire page. I voiced a few concerns, but said if you’re going to do this, just make sure the page is clearly labeled as such. The editor did fine: the page was labeled “Satire” and the folio called the paper “NOT The Northern Lights.” Seemed to be good to me.
However, after the second issue we quickly learned people don’t pay much attention to folios. Two stories appeared on the satire page: “Mascot name offensive, changes needed” was a nod to the use of Redskins as a team mascot, this time saying our Panther was a bad choice and that PETA was needed to intervene; the other story, “Like government, school shutdown impending” poked fun at the Obamacare controversy by discussing how school was soon to have full nurse coverage during the school day and how that would cut in to other programs. Entertaining? Yes. Best satire ever? No.

With the paper in print and online, eventually alumni saw the stories and emailed. Now mind you, just a few, but enough to learn a lesson or two. First, not everyone gets satire. Two, you offend your readers when you point out to them the story was satirical and not to be taken seriously. 

With the paper in print and online, eventually alumni saw the stories and emailed. Now mind you, just a few, but enough to learn a lesson or two. First, not everyone gets satire. Two, you offend your readers when you point out to them the story was satirical and not to be taken seriously.
Is satire worth it? Maybe sometimes, but remember: most newspapers don’t include satire, so it is easy for a reader to get confused when what is a typical straightforward paper decides to enter the world of comedy. Perhaps a special publication for satire would be a better way to go.

Model ethical guidelines for satire
Satire can make for entertaining writing, however two major points should be considered when discussing the inclusion of satire: 1: Will readers get “it?” and 2: Even if readers do get “it,” are you walking a fine line with the type of content expected of your publication and that which isn’t necessarily journalistic?

While there may be nothing inherently unethical about including satirical content in a student publication, is that the type of content the publication should be known for?

Consider this: does the nightly news ever take a segment for anchors to report on something that didn’t really happen? The back page of the Washington Post run Onion-like stories? Certainly there is a place for satire, but is the legitimate news source the correct place?

Staff manual process
Discuss the need for policies and information about satire depending on the type of media you are. While satire might be appropriate for a literary magazine or humor magazine, does it have a place in the newspaper or on the website?

Suggestions
• Satire can be an effective tool when writing an opinion piece. Consider limiting satire to the opinion pages, where it is clearly labeled opinion.

  • Satire online can create issues. Consider a former student searching for school news and comes upon a satirical piece that isn’t obviously satirical by just Googling the school name. Is the desire to include satire in a legitimate news source worth the confusion? Is satire journalistic?
  • Some schools produce special edition papers for April Fools Day. Imagine The New York Times doing the same. Hard to do, isn’t it? Why sacrifice the integrity of the paper for fun? Perhaps if satire is so important, the staff should produce a separate humor publication that doesn’t conflict with news. Staffs often think everyone will get the joke, but that’s not always the case. Further, the next time you do try to cover hard-hitting news the readers might think back to how you took everything as a joke the last issue.
  • Spend time discussing what your role as a journalist is. Are you a trained satirical writer? Just as we would advise against horoscopes and advice columns as teens often aren’t qualified to provide such content, how does satire fit in with a serious journalistic program?

Resources
Introduction to Satire, JEA  
Avoiding Libel in Satire, JEA 
Ethics and Satire, JEA 
Satire Writing Tips 
How to Start Writing Satire

To find the rest of the Foundations ethical guidelines and more, go here and here.

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