It is on the Internet, it must be true

Jennifer Oravet is a fine reporter at WSFA in Montgomery. She saw something interesting on the Internet today, made a few phone calls. Seems The Onion had a breakout story on Alabama.

Oravet posted about it on her Facebook account. We talked about this in class today:


Oravet apparently didn’t know, when this adventure began last week, that The Onion is a satirical site. She said she did afterward, in the comments below the post, “it cites an actual PR firm, and slanders the names of employees and lodges serious accusations about the state of Alabama. The bottom line, it’s a talker story.”

It was a talker, made more so because of your reaction. But, first, there was no slander. The Onion is written so, if anything, you could say libel. Second, the person quoted in The Onion story is fictitious. Go ahead and Google him. Third, if Dylan Feldstone was a real entity, we’re most likely talking about a misquote rather than libel (or slander). Since the fictional Feldstone is not libeling himself … Well, Alabama defines libel thusly:

“Libel tending to provoke breach of peace.

Any person who publishes a libel of another which may tend to provoke a breach of the peace shall be punished, on conviction, by fine and imprisonment in the county jail, or hard labor for the county; the fine not to exceed in any case $500.00 and the imprisonment or hard labor not to exceed six months.”

Code of Alabama Section 13A-11-160

Let’s look at the law in New York, assuming that the fictional Feldstone works at the real Hill and Knowlton’s headquarters. Defamation claims in the Empire State include:

1. a false statement;
2. published to a third party without privilege or authorization;
3. with fault amounting to at least negligence;
4. that caused special harm or defamation per se.

See Dillon v. City of New York, 261 A.D.2d 34, 38

So, again, there’s no libel as the “without privilege or authorization” test is negated by Feldstone being a fictional character. There is such a thing as group libel, so you could try to make an argument about the firm or the state. But, then, there’s that pesky issue of satire.

Satire, caricature and parody are forms of art that rely on blurring the line between truth and outrageousness. Below are suggestions — some taken from opinions in New Times v. Isaacks, decided in September by the Texas Supreme Court, and the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell — of things to include to help make it unlikely that a reasonable person would believe the story to be actually true. The context of the entire story is important, so no single suggestion is guaranteed to protect from liability. It is also not necessary to include all of the suggestions below.

But to move away from the basic aspects of media law and back to the immediate issue, the way WSFA treated the thing from start to finish, and the contextual clues you could glean from that, suggest they didn’t catch the joke for quite some time.

By the time they went to air, of course, they got it. WSFA ran a package on the non-story on Thursday night. You can read the gist from text even though the video has been removed from the station’s site. Again, some of the language they used in the story suggests they were still new to The Onion, as is discussed below.

Media Bistro soon chimed in and then Jim Romenesko covered the story, with an Onionesque headline himself: TV reporter discovers Onion stories are fake:

Actually, Jennifer, all Onion articles are fictitious. (Just one c.)

Did she know that when she put in the call to Hill & Knowlton? I called WSFA to find out and was told that Oravet is taking the day off. A newsroom colleague – she wouldn’t give me her name – insisted that the reporter/anchor knew the Hill & Knowlton/Alabama story was fake from the start.

“It doesn’t sound like it based on her Facebook post,” I said.

“Did you see her report?” the colleague asked.

I said I had, and figured she had been set straight about The Onion before going on air. Wrong, I was told — Oravet always knew it was a satirical paper.

WSFA Facebook commenters have their doubts, too. One writes:

“I don’t know what’s better, her original post, or her backpedaling to ‘cover up; her mistake. I’ve done dummy things like that (most recent when I applauded Beyonce at the inauguration… lip sync anyone?) but come on, admit you’re stupid sometimes just like the rest of us.”

That last part, that’s important.

All of this comes down to media literacy, of course. Things like WSFA saying The Onion “even” made a video and Oravet writing “the alleged study” suggests they weren’t initially familiar with the comedy site or their decades of publication. But you can’t expect everyone to know everything.

But still. One of my students asked the key question today “How many times do people have to be burned by The Onion?” Every so often you read another story where someone was caught unawares by The Onion. It happens. They have great writers. Reading the stories linked on the left rail, beside the video and the main text, should be a clue. All of that must have gone unnoticed this time.

Here WSFA is trying to walk it back. But as you read the comments on the Facebook posts dealing with this topic (the original one, screen capped above was finally removed) the whole unfortunate incident has dinger their credibility. Shame, really, that’s a good station.

One thought on “It is on the Internet, it must be true

  1. Pingback: Uhhh … Bonjour! (Or don’t mistake comedy for the truth) | Crimson links, tips and miscellany

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s