Earlier this year, comics internet was besieged by a storm of outrage when a story broke that a school system had banned a young girl's Wonder Woman lunchbox from school because it encourages violence. The Outhouse reported on this story, noting that, while it could be a hoax, since its source was an anonymous Reddit post, it certainly seemed like "exactly the sort of idiotic bureaucratic policy a school would implement."
It turns out, I may have been completely off base, because at least one school is succeeding where entertainment journalism routinely fails. Yesterday, I received an email from the teacher of an eighth grade social studies class who was teaching his class how to "question the sources they are reading." He included an email from three students, and I responded. You can read the exchange below.
Dear Mr. Terror
We were reading your article about the Wonder Women lunch box story in social study class. We were wondering if you knew the Wonder Woman lunchbox issue is real. We were wondering How you found out about this story. Also wanted to know if you knew any details about the people who were involved with this story, and if you could please let us know. Could you tell us the name of the school or even the town that this story originated from. Also if you could please tell us who the superintendents name or the school district. One last thing do you think the story is true? If you could please respond please e-mail the email below because we can not email you from our school email.
[email address withheld]
While I was initially shocked to be addressed in this way (Mr. Terror is my dad's name!), I was impressed with how these eighth grade students were so easily able to identify the obvious holes in this story that the rest of the media was seemingly unable to see when it broke. I responded:
Dear [names withheld],
You are already more astute than many journalists in entertainment media for simply asking these questions. The fact is, these are basic questions that should be asked when reporting on any story, but in the case of the Wonder Woman lunchbox, almost no one bothered to ask them.
You probably don't know this, but my website, The Outhouse, is a parody website that aims to make fun of the tabloid style of journalism often used in entertainment news. Think about a television show like The Colbert Report, whose host, Stephen Colbert, pretended to be a conservative news pundit in order to mock actual conservative news pundits, to get an idea of the type of parody my website specializes in. You can also look up "Yellow Journalism" and "Tabloid Journalism" to learn more about the style we parody.
Even though we are parodying a style, when we make things up in our stories, we try to do it on purpose, for humor. An example would be making up a fake quote in which an executive for a comic book company says something outrageous, but, at the same time, something which a cynic would say is closer to the truth than the thing the executive actually said. In the case of the Wonder Woman lunchbox story, I did write that the story "could be a hoax" and made clear that the source was Reddit, an anonymous social media site. However, looking at my story from a journalistic perspective, I did not do a good job of making the facts clear to the reader. For what we're trying to accomplish, that's okay. Our regular readers understand that they what they are reading should be taken with a grain of salt. However, a large number of websites don't seem to care if a story is accurate, as long as the article generates pageviews for the website, which boost advertising revenue.
Comic Book Resources, the most popular website in the field of comics journalism which has even won the Will Eisner Spirit Award for Journalism, covered this story as well, in an article originally titled "WONDER WOMAN LUNCHBOX DEEMED TOO VIOLENT FOR SCHOOL." In that article, the reporter did not even bother to use words like "reportedly" and "allegedly" when describing the events, which are sketchy journalism code for "someone else said this and we haven't verified it." They simply reported, "Revealed on Imgur, a friend's daughter received a letter from school stating she no longer bring her Wonder Woman lunchbox to school as it violates the school dress code, which states that students not bring violent images into the school." Stating as fact that the daughter received the letter, rather than saying that the post claimed she received the letter, makes a big difference. This story was reported irresponsibly by a lot of other websites as well.
As you so keenly noticed, the original Reddit post that was used as the original source for every story on the subject did not name a school district, making it impossible for anyone to confirm the story based on the post alone. Additionally, it turns out that the Wonder Woman lunchbox pictured is a collectible metal lunchbox sold in places like comic book shops, and so is more likely to be owned by memorabilia collectors than a kid using it to carry lunch to school (though it is not entirely out of the question). A journalist looking to uncover the truth of the story would have investigated these facts and come to the conclusion that the story was potentially, and probably, a hoax. They would have contacted the source of the story and asked questions, such as the name of the school district, so they could investigate further. However, a journalist looking to capitalize on a trending topic with a potentially viral article would not care about that.
Heidi MacDonald, a friend of mine who runs a website called Comics Beat and who has been reporting on comics for a lot longer than me, was one of the few people to take her time with the story, and she reported that this story was probably a hoax. You can read her report here: http://www.comicsbeat.com/no-a-school-did-not-ban-a-cute-wonder-woman-lunchbox/ . After Heidi's report, as well as general doubt about the unverified status of the story on social media, Comic Book Resources was forced to change their headline to "DOUBT CAST ON SCHOOL'S ALLEGED WONDER WOMAN LUNCHBOX BAN" and update the article with a retraction. You can read that article here: http://www.comicbookresources.com/article/wonder-woman-lunchbox-deemed-too-violent-for-school .
It's worth noting that, in many cases, far more people will read an original story than will read a correction. Some people don't even read the article itself; they just read the headline. So for publications who want to do a good job at journalism, it's important to get the story right the first time, or to at least do their best to gather facts and be up front about what they don't actually know. However, you should never trust that the person writing an article you're reading has done that. Asking questions, like you have, and thinking critically about what you've read is extremely important, and I'm glad to know that you're learning about it.
Now, let me make sure I've answered all your questions:
When I first wrote the story, I did not know whether it was real or not. However, I did recognize that there was no proof offered in the original post, and that the anonymous source made the story suspect. I found out about the story through an article one of the visitors of my website pointed me to, which was from the UK website Metro: http://metro.co.uk/2015/08/26/parents-told-their-daughters-wonder-woman-lunchbox-is-too-violent-for-school-5361976/ . You may notice that that article also does not offer any indication that the story might be fake. I do not know any of the details about the people involved in the story, the name of the school district, or the name of the superintendent. As far as I know, nobody does.
Ultimately, though it's impossible to tell for sure, I would guess that the story is not true.
Good luck in your studies!
And I received the reply:
Dear Mr Terror
Thank you for your response on the Wonder Women lunch box story!! We appreciate you responding to our questions, and taking the time to answer all our questions in detail.
In my (perhaps arrogantly wordy) response to that email, I hoped to impart some of my journalistic wisdom on these young minds, an opportunity I was honored to have. However, in truth, I think it's we in the field of comics journalism who can learn a lesson from them.
Kids, if you're reading this: nice job. And also, someone really needs to update your school's content filter.