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‘Fake news’ kills off April Fool’s stories

A long media tradition in Norway of airing or publishing false stories on April 1, in the hopes of fooling readers and listeners, was in danger of dying out this year. Several media outlets claimed they were dropping the tradition, for fear their “April Fool’s” stories would now be branded as “fake news.”

Hopeful customers lining up outside a wine monopoly store in Oslo on April 1, 1950, buckets in hand. Newspaper Aftenposten had reported that cheap wine would be available. But they had not checked the date. PHOTO: Wikipedia

“We should be allowed to joke on one day of the year, I thought,” the editor-in-chief of Trondheim newspaper Adresseavisen, Tor Olav Mørseth, told Journalisten, the news service in Norway that covers media issues and caters to journalists themselves. “Now the situation is a bit different, given the discussion around media credibility and fake news.”

Asked whether that’s why his newspaper and website won’t be offering a story meant to fool readers on Saturday, Mørseth responded that “it at least helps simplify the debate” around false April 1 stories.

Strong tradition a victim of the times
The tradition is so strong in Norway that readers have eagerly looked for possible April’s Fool’s stories in the papers, and listened for them on the news, hoping to be among the first to spot them. Journalisten recalled how last year, Adresseavisen wrote about an alleged new climate-friendly seat tax in cars that drivers had to pay if the seats were empty. The money would be used, according to Adresseavisen, to pay for electric cables that would melt snow and ice in bicycle lanes. Newspaper Bergens Tidende, meanwhile, reported on April 1st last year that the city planned to removed its city gate Stadsporten to make more room for the cycling World Champinships it will host. Dagen reported that parts of the Royal Palace in Oslo would be used to house asylum seekers.

When Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on its nightly national newscast Dagsrevyen Wednesday that the tradition was in danger, some viewers thought NRK was itself trying to be first with an April Fool’s joke story, a few days ahead of April 1. NRK Nyheter (News), however, along with major newspapers Aftenposten, VG and Dagbladet are no longer publishing April Fool’s stories.

Now Bergens Tidende is also among media outlets claiming it was dropping the April Fool’s tradition beginning this year. “What’s in the newspaper shall be true,” its editor-in-chief, Øyulf Hjertenes, told Journalisten. “We produce a lot of humorous journalism throughout the year, but the demand is that it be true,” Hjertenes said. “April 1st joke stories have been a fun tradition in the Norwegian press, but in the climate we’re now in, with the spread of fake news, it would be wrong for us who live off our credibility to deliver fake news just because the calendar reads April 1st.”

Archive problems
René Svendsen said he dropped the April Fool’s tradition when he took over as editor-in-chief of newspaper Fredrikstad Blad three years ago. He doesn’t think genuine and joke news should be blended, as a matter of principle. “I have a sense of humour and like satire, but when we saw that our online archives grew and that April Fool’s stories were shared along with genuine news all year round, without clearly being marked, it went from being humour to being a liability. And then the choice (to drop it) was easy.” He worries that even joke stories in print can be shared, via photocopies and PDF versions.

Vidar Selbekk, editor-in-chief of the Christian-oriented newspaper and online service Dagen, dismissed such concerns and told NRK that his publications will have an April Fool’s joke story as long as he’s in charge. “We write about such serious things the rest of the year that it’s important to have a story that’s just nonsense,” he said. “The media can inform readers later that it was joke.”

Online news service Nettavisen also claimed it still had a clear intention of offering an April Fool’s story on April 1st. News editor Erik Stephansen told Journalisten that “we don’t carry fake news the rest of the year, so we can have fun with a joke on such a day.” He thinks it’s a fine tradition in Norway, and that local media shouldn’t fight “the fake news phenemonon” by hitting the panic button. He hopes other media outlets will also uphold the tradition, but noted that running a joke story relied on the editorial staff coming up with a good enough idea for one.

Lists of the best joke stories in the past are almost always topped in Norway by newspaper Aftenposten’s report 67 years ago that the state liquor monopoly needed to unload excess wine and would sell it cheaply to people who arrived with their own buckets. That prompted many Norwegians to line up outside Vinmonopolet outlets, buckets in hand. Berglund



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