Three most dangerous words

By · Saturday, May 7th, 2011

“I’m just kidding.”

These have to be the three most dangerous words, especially for journalists and, perhaps, politicians.


They usually are preceded by some type of gaffe, such as an inappropriate joke, an insensitive email, a sharing of a misunderstood story of some kind or a faux pas involving a stereotype. Sometimes the phrase, “I’m just kidding,” is accompanied by an apology — always a good approach for a journalist, but a wild card for a politician.

Audiences — be it one person, dozens, hundreds or hundreds of thousands — are savvy to the phrase. It has come to be known as code for “big mistake.” How can you avoid it?

It’s not always easy, especially when you’re having a good time, you want to fit in, you think you are paying someone a compliment, you are distracted, you are tired, you are angry.

I always tell students not to joke with the news. The point is made poignantly in an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” during which the character Lou Grant tells Mary, “The news is sacred.” I showed this episode in my editing class this semester. In the show, Mary has fun with a fake obituary about the oldest man in the city; the joke backfires when the man dies, and the fake obit makes air on the nightly news. According to pop culture standards, you might be thinking this example is old-fashioned. Perhaps. But there is nothing outdated about protecting the integrity of the news, of journalism and of a person’s character. That’s why attention to joke-telling, one-on-one ribbing and, yes, behind-the-scenes ridicule is paramount.

Each one of us is always just three words away from a major — and possibly public —- mea culpa. That’s what is so scary about the whole issue. We all must be cognizant of that, as well as the repercussions. They aren’t pretty.

prof emilie



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