The Onion is a terrific on-line satire magazine that is almost always good for a chuckle. But perhaps the best chuckle of all comes from people unfamiliar with the Onion encountering its stories out of context and taking them seriously. One of the best known examples of that is the Onion article claiming Harry Potter got kids into Satanism, but there have been others.

Recently, the Onion posted an article claiming that “every style of parenting produces disturbed, miserable adults.” It attributed this finding to a (fictitious) study done by the (real) California Parenting Institute of Santa Rosa. And, predictably, the Institute started getting calls from people who didn’t understand that the Onion was a satire paper.

“For instance, we had a lady, she basically called and said she was writing a book or something and she really wanted a copy of the research and it supported some of her thoughts,” [Wendy Hilberman, director of marketing and development for CPI] said.

“It’s obviously not OK to list our agency, even in satire,” she said.

And Robin Bowen, CPI’s executive director, points out that the satirical nature is not immediately obvious when the story is taken out of context:

“I’m totally aware that it’s satire,” she said. “But it’s spreading through the internet and people’s blogs and where it’s coming from is getting left off and it’s looking like a news story.”

It’s easy to see where the CPI people are coming from. One of the hallmarks of the Onion is the deadpan style of its articles that apes professional journalism’s tone really well. The articles often mention real people or institutions (such as CPI). And if people just skim the article, without reading closely enough to notice the satirical tone or seeing other headlines like “Remains of Ancient Race of Job Creators Found In Rust Belt” or “Man’s Utter Failure In Life A Bit Of A Sore Spot” that make it somewhat more obvious the site is satirical in nature, it’s easy to see how some people could be fooled.

But on the other hand, as I’ve said before, even the smartest people often need to develop better skills for evaluating the stories they find on the Internet. And anyone who does get taken in by this article at first, then finds out the truth, will have learned a valuable lesson about fact-checking.

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TeleRead Editor Chris Meadows has been writing for us--except for a brief interruption--since 2006. Son of two librarians, he has worked on a third-party help line for Best Buy and holds degrees in computer science and communications. He clearly personifies TeleRead's motto: "For geeks who love books--and book-lovers who love gadgets." Chris lives in Indianapolis and is active in the gamer community.


  1. This is the kind of thing that often gets copy-pasted into an email and forwarded; no attribution, no original source, no URL, nothing but the bare text. Given that, about the only thing people could do would be to do a search for the names and organizations cited in the story itself–and, since there actually is a CPI, that makes it look more like a real thing.

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