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July 12, 2005

Time and again, people are suckered by online satire.

There was a scene in the movie Speed where the bomber who is watching his own exploits on all the different news networks watches one newscaster report on what another newscaster has just reported, and comments that this is interactive television.

The media is becoming increasingly self-referential. I write comments reporting on articles I've read elsewhere, television stations broadcast terrorist videos aired on Web sites, and, in today's particular article, radio stations report on articles they've read on satirical sites on the Internet.

This morning, on my way to work, Mark Gillman read out an article on how a family had doctored the photographs of their missing child to appeal to the sympathies of the nation and compel them to help in the search for her. She was made blonde, perky and possessed of a gorgeous smile.

The story went on to quote people who had felt cheated by the dramatic footage of the rescue of the child, when it turned out that she was actually a dark-haired, chubby child with a big gap between her front teeth. Apparently certain news networks were going to sue the parents for the damage their daughter's appearance was doing to their ratings.

Aside from the obvious logic flaw that if the photograph didn't look like the child, it seemed unlikely anyone would recognise her even if they were involved in the desperate search, the tongue-in-cheek tone of the article should have been apparent to anyone. The father speaks of other, prettier children who have already received maximum missing child coverage this season, and then says of his own beloved offspring that every time she smiles, she scares the family cat.

Convinced that this was not a genuine article, I searched for it the moment I arrived at the office. Sure enough, it was originally published on the Watley Review, a satire site with a disclaimer clearly labelled, "Please read this before quoting us in court".

I'm not sure if Gillman was reporting on this story and believing in it, or if he was merely propagating the satire cycle. Either way, this raises some interesting ethical questions. Although Gillman is not a newsreader, he is disseminating information to the public. Can he, therefore, disseminate satire as a news article even though there's no way to view a disclaimer on radio? Does that become satire in itself? Does the obviously hammed-up tone of the article alert the average listener to the fact that it is utter bilge?

If the answer is "no", then is it OK that he presented the story as fact? If it isn't OK, then where does sarcasm fit into this "only truth on the radio waves" continuum?

While the average Internet-literate radio listener is probably well equipped to identify such farcical commentary, there are unfortunately a lot of really ignorant people out there who, I am pretty sure, will spend the rest of today reporting with absolute horror and wringing of hands the story of the girl who was sued by CNN for being ugly.

Like the satirical article about how Harry Potter books are satanic that did the rounds a couple of years back, I suspect that we're going to see this one cropping up over the next couple of weeks, labelled as a travesty and an outrage.

And as I am reporting on the Internet on something I heard on the radio that was originally published on the Internet and wasn't true to begin with, so the cycle will continue. It's kind of like staring at your reflection vanishing into infinity in mirrors placed opposite each other.

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