April Fools’ Journalism

From the files of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

By Casey Bukro

The April 1, 1985 edition of Sports Illustrated magazine carried a story by the late George Plimpton saying that a New York Mets rookie pitcher named Siddhartha (Sidd) Finch could throw a baseball more than 160 miles an hour.

It was a hoax, and Sports Illustrated later admitted that the story was an April Fools’ joke. Plimpton was famous for taking turns as a Yankee baseball pitcher, a Baltimore Colts football player and boxing Archie Moore — then writing about the experience from an amateur’s viewpoint. It was an example of what today might be described as participatory journalism. Plimpton did a lot of that.

A sports publication journalist called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, saying he had an idea for an April Fools’ Day story in the Plimpton tradition, but wanted to know if that would be ethical.

The AdviceLine adviser remembered the story about fireball pitcher Sidd Finch, and was skeptical at the time he saw it in 1985.

“This was due to the very well-known reputation of Plimpton as a writer who went in for bizarre experiences and writing having to do with sports,” said the adviser, who also recalled that Plimpton and Sports Illustrated at the time “came in for little serious criticism once the hoax was divulged.”

Most readers thought it was “fun” in keeping with the kind of work Plimpton did during his career. But the adviser suggested that, just like fastball pitchers, not all writers can deliver a change-up:

“Without this background and past reputation, a true journalist risks his/her reputation and the reputation of his/her news media using this device. A direct answer is, the creation or promulgation of a known false story is unethical, Plimpton notwithstanding.”

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