News literacy: Can you smell the satire? The Onion looks at Chicago’s violence problem

Friday, October 14, 2016
News Literacy concept: A look at a piece of satire demonstrates how easily content can blur the lines between truth and falsehood.
As gun violence has escalated in Chicago, the city’s troubles have become a punchline for politicians and comedians. In 2014—ironically, a year when the city’s homicide total fell to its lowest level in almost half a century, but the number of shootings exceeded 2,500—the satiric newspaper The Onion published a piece titled “Environmental Study Finds Air In Chicago Now 75% Bullets.”
It’s a piece that, as the city’s violence has escalated, has been widely shared again and again.
Founded in Madison, Wis., and now headquartered in Chicago, The Onion’s earned its reputation as a respected—but make-believe—site that ridicules the news business, blurring the lines between truth and satire, among other things by following traditional journalistic conventions, (like The Associated Press Stylebook) religiously.
That can make discriminating between an Onion piece and a truthful news story difficult for those who don’t know it’s comedy site. In fact, that’s happened several times since 1988, when The Onion was founded by students at the University of Wisconsin. Among those fooled: China's People's Daily Online, an Iranian news agency, ESPN, a U.S. congressman and even The New York Times itself.


Note that seemingly scientific phrase, “approximately 75 percent of the air in Chicago.” If that were true—if three-quarters of the air were made up of bullets—what would the air look like? Also: Would air still be air if it were “made up of bullets”? What happens to bullets fired from a gun. Do they stay in the air? Can you imagine any way this headline could be true? If not, would this story fail the VIA (Verification, Independence, Accountability) test?
  • What other clues suggest this Onion article is satire, not journalism?
  • What about this story makes it seem like it just might be true?
  • How has The Onion made this story look like the real thing?
  • What sets off alarm bells that something’s not quite right with this story?
  • Does Northwestern University have a “Department of Environmental Studies”?
Supplemental Media
[Originally prepared for the Center for News Literacy at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, October 2016.]

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