A tragic lesson: Practical jokes can take on a new meaning in the Internet age

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 12 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Two policemen stand guard outside King Edward VII hospital , in central London, Friday, Dec. 7, 2012. King Edward VII hospital says a nurse involved in a prank telephone call to elicit information about the Duchess of Cambridge has died. The hospital said Friday that Jacintha Saldanha had been a victim of the call made by two Australian radio disc jockeys. They did not immediately say what role she played in the call.

Lefteris Pitarakis, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Like so many other things, practical jokes can take on a new and exaggerated meaning in the Internet age.

The tragic apparent suicide of a nurse whose job had been to care for the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, at a London hospital, is an unfortunate example of the worst consequences of this. Many facts remain unknown, but it appears the nurse may have been distraught at having fallen for a prank by a pair of Australian radio personalities who pretended to be Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles in an effort to get information.

Practical jokes are hardly a new invention. It would be hard to find someone who didn't have personal experience with one, either as perpetrator or victim. Often, however, the point is to make a victim feel foolish, and too often the perpetrator doesn't take those feelings into account when hatching the scheme.

The feeling of foolishness is bad enough when only a handful of friends is aware of what happened. Today, however, a simple prank can go viral on the Internet, exposing an unwitting person to worldwide laughter or ridicule.

Ironically, Peter Funt may have put the best perspective on the current tragic story. Funt is the son of Allen Funt, who became famous in the early years of television for producing "Candid Camera," a show that used hidden cameras to pull pranks on many unsuspecting people.

In an op-ed published this week by the New York Times, Funt said there was nothing wrong with the "sophomoric gag" the radio personalities pulled, except that "everything is magnified and made permanent in the digital environment."

In this age, he wrote, "The practical joking itself — usually on video — has intensified in both volume and crudeness." Viewers have become desensitized because of a "barrage of clips" on sites such as YouTube. They forget that such videos involve real people and "it's easy to lose track of the inherent risks involved."

On "Candid Camera," he said, the staff "always worried about what might go wrong."

Unfortunately, too many everyday pranksters never take the time to entertain such worries. Too few young people, in particular, stop to think before sending compromising images of others, or even themselves, to places where they lose control of distribution.

And, as may have been the case in Australia, too few media outlets put discretion ahead of sensationalism in the quest for ratings.

The incident involving the nurse and the radio personalities had no winners. The laugh wasn't really very big to begin with, and now, as the radio hosts demonstrated in a tearful interview this week, there is plenty of remorse to go around.

Jokes that derive laughs from humiliation are a bad idea. We hope this sad lesson is not soon forgotten.

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