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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, December 10, 2012

Media Pranks: A Victim Must Be Found

The recent prank by the two Aussie DJs proves the old adage, once again that media organizations are just variants of a high school culture - who's "in" and who's not. In short, unless management deliberately outlaws bad behavior, media organizations in general, and newsrooms in particular, can thrive in an atmosphere of intimidation and bullying.

In this recent case, the DJs telephoned the London hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated for extreme morning sickness, imitated two members of the royal family, and tricked a nurse at the London hospital into believing them. The conversation with the nurse was recorded without her permission, then broadcast on Australian commercial radio.

The nurse, who is originally from India, was subsequently found dead the next day, an apparent suicide.

The DJs have apologized and seem deeply contrite, but it is somewhat late in the day for that.

Part of the problem is the nature of pranks, which by their very nature, can only be deemed successful when there is a victim.

Much of modern media culture delights in this foolishness, and we now have programs which delight in making people look foolish. Daniel Tosh's "Tosh 2.0", Tracy Morgan's "Scare Tactics" and "Just For Laughs" are recent expressions of media sadism.

Spoofs, on the other hand, are different. They allow everyone to be in on the joke.

The BBC has a long history of spoofs, going back to 1957 and its three minute film on the "Spaghetti Harvest". Broadcast on the very serious public affairs program, "Panorama", it purported to show a family in southern Switzerland harvesting pasta from a tree. The BBC was deluged with phone calls, many from outraged viewers, insisting that the story could not be true. Other called asking for more information and asking how to grow their own spaghetti trees in England.

NPR also has a long tradition of April Fool's Day spoofs. Art Silverman is a producer on NPR's "All Things Considered." He reminded me of some of the more notable stories:

1 - The federal government will introduce a health care plan for pets.
2 - Zip codes can be transferred when you move.
3 - Starbucks is building a pipeline to bring coffee from South America.
4 - Canada is buying Arizona.
5 - Scientists have created a program that allows your pet's voice to be translated into English.
6 - Hipsters in Brooklyn advocating a return to a slow computing movement, preferring the more "authentic" dial-up over high speed internet.
7 - Scientists discover talking coho salmon.
And (my personal favorite)  8 - Untapped maple trees explode in Vermont due to sap build up.

I took many a call as NPR's Ombudsman, from listeners shocked, shocked that the federal government was going to introduce "Petcare" and denouncing NPR's obvious support for this appalling waste of taxpayers' money...Listeners (mostly) laughed when I informed them that today's date is April 1st...

Not much to laugh about in this recent attempt at humor from Australia.


  1. I enjoy pranks, but I understand that some people feel that it is no fun being made to look foolish. I don't believe that the DJs have any need to apologize. They have no control over the effects of their pranks, just as those who surprise someone and yell boo, have done nothing wrong, unless they knew that the subject had a bad heart. The news media should never do it, but DJs etc. have nothing to do with news. They are only entertainers.

  2. I love your enthuiasm and writing style. I am looking forward on reading the next hub. Rated up.