© 1995, The Daily Beacon. All rights reserved.

Journalism class' experiment aims to teach a lesson

Daily Beacon Copy Chief

Interested in attending a meeting for the Southern Coalition for Political Incorrectness? You're out of luck. No such group exists.

But according to a fake press release formulated and sent out by a UT journalism class, the organization plans to meet at 8 p.m. April 29 at the World's Fair Park.

The purpose of the hoax? To see how many newspapers in Middle and East Tennessee inquire about the group before printing the information provided in the press release.

Students sent out news releases to approximately 35 newspapers, and each student participating is assigned a newspaper to monitor for publication of the information. Once a newspaper publishes the information, students notify it so a retraction can be printed. If a paper calls to verify the information, the students posing as contacts explain the project's purpose and congratulate the paper for checking the facts.

"We coached the (class) discussion in a big discussion of ethics," said Candace McKearney, instructor for J270, a first-year public relations class. "We also considered the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics," which encourages journalists to be responsible and accurate in their reporting.

But some disagree with the class' method because they say it could be potentially misleading to any member of the public that might attend the meeting.

"I don't disagree with the lesson," said Laurie Kitrell, public information officer for Oak Ridge Associated Universities, a DOE contractor.

"A lot of reporters are going to trust something that comes across their desk.

"As someone who has been in the profession for five years, my concern is with the potential to harm someone. This could actually appear in the newspaper."

Kitrell graduated from UT in public relations in 1991.

McKearney said that is a very good point.

"The class discussed the innocent bystander," McKearney said. "We made sure to build in careful measures to correct it."

"Careful monitoring of newspapers is real important. We don't want any innocent bystanders."

"I would agree with students that are concerned with the 'innocent bystander effect.' It's not our intent that this is a hoax (on an innocent bystander)," McKearney said.

"There's a trend due to downsizing in newspapers of an overdependence on other media (to supply newspapers with information). That's not good journalistic practice," she said.

Someone in the class will be at the World's Fair Park at the time of the meeting to apologize to anyone who might attend.

"Really, we'll be apologizing for irresponsible media," McKearney said.

Kevin Ryan, junior in public relations and contact for the press release, agrees.

"Our point is they (the public) shouldn't see the article in the first place," he said. "It's the journalists' fault for not checking their sources. Whether they show up or not, we feel bad for them (the public)."

"We're not trying to badmouth or put down anybody. Why would you want to discredit the whole vocation (of journalism)? It's a classroom experiment," he said.

The catalyst for the experiment was twofold. Media hoaxer Joey Skaggs visited UT on March 14-15 for a series of class presentations and spoke in McKearney's class about hoaxes he's done that have been publicized worldwide. The class has also been discussing media ethics and the journalist's responsibility to check facts.

The difference between Skaggs' hoaxes and the class project is that he would carry out his hoaxes past the verification stage, McKearney said.

"We tested the premise that we are so easily led by the media, but that the media is lax in its responsibility for accurately reporting information," she said.

The project was not an assignment, was student-funded, and not all students in the class participated, she said.

Skaggs said in a phone interview that the class' project is interesting because it's a study.

"I think it's a very interesting way first-handedly to see how the media operates," he said.

"The point is that it goes on all the time," he said, pointing out that the media are constantly bombarded with information that isn't true from many types of sources.

Skaggs has been pulling off hoaxes on the media for more than 29 years, duping such well-known news organizations as CNN,Good Morning America, Entertainment Tonite,The New York Times and The Washington Post.

He works in three stages: creating the hoax and getting it to the media through advertising or public relations methods; collecting stories from print, video and audio news that have publicized the false information; and then revealing the truth about the hoax.

Skaggs also teaches a course titled "Culture Jamming and Media Activism" at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

His latest hoax was publicizing the " annual April Fool's Day Coronation of the King of Fools," marked by a parade that was supposed to start on Fifth Avenue in New York City. His press release invited the public to participate, "in or out of costume, with or without floats." Skaggs mailed out 150 press releases and approximately 70 faxes, and it was covered by the New York Post and announced throughout the day by a local radio station.

Courtney Conner, sophomore in public relations and one of the students that wrote the press release, said she doesn't agree with Skaggs' methods and doesn't wholeheartedly agree with the method her class used.

"I understand what she (McKearney) was trying to do," Conner said. "Our goal was to see if newspapers would check. We're just trying to show that not all newspapers check."

"The press release didn't give a whole lot of information. I really think if a person was interested in attending, then they would call the contact person to find out more information."

"I'm a public relations major, and I'm being taught that I need to keep good friendships with the media. I don't understand why teaching us how to hoax them is a good idea."

"But it was a teaching method. It was a learning experience and that was good, but I don't necessarily think this was the best one."

Copyright © 1995, The Daily Beacon. All rights reserved.