Did the Onion go too far?

On Thursday, the humor-parody site the Onion posted this status update on Facebook:

BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building

And then it didn’t post anything for 10 minutes—an eternity in cyberspace after posting a headline like that.

If you headed to the Onion’s website, you saw a story about a dozen Congressmen taking a class of schoolchildren hostage. A false story, thankfully. Satire, meant to poke fun at a dysfunctional legislative branch whose approval numbers are lower than the thermometer on a January morning in Alaska.

Now, this is hardly the first time the Onion has posted content that rode the razor’s edge of good taste. And really—who looks to the Onion for their news reporting?

But there’s no doubt that more than a few hearts skipped a beat this morning when readers saw that headline. Maybe they didn’t notice the source. Maybe they had children on a field trip to the capitol Thursday morning. And there have been occasions in the past when non-traditional sources end up reporting hard news, simply because they’re on the scene when it happens. Anyone who was watching the 1989 World Series between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants can remember when the Bay Area earthquake hit, and watching sportscasters Al Michaels and Tim McCarver report on what had happened simply because they were there and on live national TV. They said “This is not a sports story…”

So, yes, the Onion went too far. In 2011, when reports of guns in schools and terrorist attacks on government buildings around the world are far too common, the Onion went too far.

In March of 2010, TPS blogged about using humor in business communications. Our observations then hold true now:

…if not handled with tact, comedy can backfire and ruin an otherwise fine piece of writing…As Shakespeare, himself no stranger to satire and the clever use of humor, wrote in Henry IV, “The better part of valour is discretion.” When in doubt, don’t.

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