Monday, April 2, 2012

Press Coverage of my April Fool's Joke

Screen shot via Gawker
For a little while yesterday, my April Fool's joke on Forbes was the top news item on Google News. As social media expert (and my cousin) Josh Bernoff explains here, the Google algorithm has no way of distinguishing news from humor or satire. When I wrote the piece, I was targeting the human demographic so I guess it's no surprise that the robot didn't get the joke.

Gawker picked it up (screenshot at left is theirs) and saw it as a setback for Forbes's journalistic integrity. By that time, Forbes had taken it down. The Washington Post reported on the kerfuffle on their Style blog.

My takeaway from this episode is that there really should be a way to distinguish commentary from news. In newspapers, commentary is clearly labeled as commentary or opinion and typically presented in a separate part of the newspaper. I know the last two interior pages of section 1 of the New York Times are editorials and opinion and no thought at all is required to figure out that David Brooks is not a journalist.

Reputable news sites like Forbes should agree to insert an HTML code that identifies items by type. It could be just news or commentary, or there could be finer distinctions such as sports, people, etc., like the sections of a newspaper. There could even be a category for humor or satire.

Then even a robot would be able to get the joke.

[The post in question is here.]

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  1. To tell you the truth, the idea that Google used an algorithm was in the back of my head. I just thought that they "tuned it" in a similar fashion as their self-driving car or SPAM filter. I find it hard to believe that after all of these years the algorithm failed to pick up on April Fool's Day.

  2. An algorithm would have a hard time discerning satire. I tried hard to mimic actual reporting and the voices of the candidates, especially Mitt. I thought the absurdity of the post and the date would make it obvious to humans, but I really didn't think about my computer "readers."

  3. hi len burman,
    Im doing a paper in my journalism class on the issue of journalists putting fabricated information in their articles as an april fools joke. Is there any way I can ask you a few questions (through email or such)?

  4. I'm not a journalist, but a blogger. Fabricating information sounds pretty insidious. My post was satire, of which there is a long and illustrious tradition. You might not think my piece works as satire, but there was no intention whatsoever to fabricate news (and it never occurred to me that anyone would interpret it as reporting until Google News mechanically flagged it as such).

    You can find my email address here:

    Send me an email with your contact information if you would like to get in touch.