How to Spot Phony Content on April Fools’ Day (and Beyond)

April Fools' Day: How to Spot a Prank Story

In a time when our consciousness is occupied by the threat of “fake news”— where our headline feeds are filled with satire that could be real and legitimate stories that seem bogus — April 1 is an especially difficult day in newsrooms.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate the news cycle, many companies may decide to forego their April Fools’ Day campaigns. Some have already had mishaps.

But that doesn’t mean that all other companies will follow suit, so it’s important to be prepared.

There are three main approaches to April Fools’ Day coverage:

  1. Play a prank on your reader (e.g., NPR’s famous Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?).
  2. Cover brands’ successful and unsuccessful jokes.
  3. Avoid featuring April Fools’ Day content altogether and focus on stories typical to your beat.

Regardless of which option you choose, you must be adept at identifying phony content.

Running a gag story as a real article not only is embarrassing but erodes confidence in the media and may have tangible consequences, including job termination.

Here are some tips to help you parse out the parodies from reality.

April Fools’ Day content is not limited to April 1.

As brands continue to develop personas and grapple with how to be authentic, many venture into creative content marketing with full-fledged April Fools’ Day campaigns or just really bad jokes.

To either give journalists a heads-up or maximize trick time, some companies launch pranks a few days early. Without the April 1 date stamped on an announcement as a clue, even the most ridiculous stories can suddenly seem believable.

Conversely, depending on what day of the week the first of the month falls on, other brands may be late to the party and launch their stunt a day or two afterward.

A good rule of thumb is to beware of any announcements coming out in late March through early April.

Thoroughly vet visual elements.

It’s never been easier to dupe people with a manipulated image. Photos without any context or doctored videos can spread like wildfire and grossly mislead audiences—especially on social media.

Whether you encounter a standalone image or multimedia as an accompaniment to other content, take the time to investigate any visuals.

Here are 5 tools to help you figure out if you’re dealing with a fake photo.

Give press releases extra scrutiny.

The news release is a staple of corporate communications and should be a go-to resource when trying to verify a story. However, many companies now use press releases to perpetuate their April Fools’ Day pranks.

Here are some questions to ask when reading a potentially fictitious release:

  • Is the tone overtly humorous?
  • What kind of sites do any hyperlinks take you to?
  • Can you find a disclaimer stating that the press release was written in jest?
  • Is there a legitimate media contact that you can reach?
  • Are there other press releases from the source discussing an upcoming April Fools’ Day marketing campaign?

Double-check the source.

While most people know what they’re getting into when they read a story from The Onion, other publications may not be as upfront with their playful material (particularly if it’s not their normal shtick).

For example, college publications that put out credible, newsworthy stories year-round are notorious for April Fools’ Day hoaxes and often end up in manuals of what not to do. Be extra cautious when reading anything from students around April 1, no matter how prestigious.

If the publication or the author is unfamiliar, do some digging into bios, previous work, and cross-check any information presented as fact. Most outlandish claims will fall apart under the pressure of a little research.

Remember that even legitimate, historically humorless organizations may put out fake content; be on your guard with reputable organizations, too.

Take the time to corroborate the story.

Depending on your beat, this process might be old hat, or you might be an easier target than usual.

Journalists and readers alike appreciate accuracy over speed; treat everything on your desk with an extra level of rigor — even it’s from a seasoned reporter or freelancer with a longstanding publication relationship.

In addition to your usual vetting process, consider:

  • Has this entity played April Fools’ Day jokes in the past?
  • Does the subject of the content fall into a popular prank category?
  • Are high-quality, supplemental resources provided?

The main takeaway: trust your gut. If something doesn’t check out or you’re on the fence about running a story, don’t publish it.

(Note: This is an updated version of a post originally published in 2019.)

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Erienne Muldoon is a senior customer content specialist for Virtual Press Office, PR Newswire’s trade show marketing solutions division. When she’s not advising clients on storytelling best practices, you can find her tweeting about Cleveland, PR, and video games @ECMuldoon.

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