The equivalent of a media practical joke seemed funny at first to the head of a Santa Rosa parenting institute.
But it quickly turned into a nightmare.
The Onion, a 23-year-old satirical online and print publication, wrote a tongue-in-cheek story that all styles of parenting cause children to grow up into "profoundly unhappy adults," based on a study credited to the California Parenting Institute of Santa Rosa.
The reported research — which caused tremors in parenting circles nationwide — found that even varying parenting styles lead to bitterness, isolation or adults "unprepared to contend with life's difficulties."
Except the institute never conducted any such study.
Robin Bowen, executive director of CPI, is familiar with The Onion and even laughed when she was first alerted to the faux-story by her daughter Thursday morning.
"Her friend in Portland had emailed her with the link," Bowen said. "She came in and woke me up and said, &‘Mom, you are never going to believe this.'"
It was when she got to work later that morning that the enormity of the impact became clear.
The story brought a deluge of calls to the Standish Avenue offices of the 33-year-old non-profit advocacy group.
"We even had parent educators who work here say, &‘When did we do a study?'" said Wendy Hilberman, director of marketing and development for CPI.
The Onion, which describes itself on its website as "an omnipotent news empire," ran the story Wednesday near stories headlined, "Nation Finally Just Breaks Down and Begs Its Smart People to Fix Everything," and "John Madden Agrees to Work as a Consultant for Raiders Concession Stand."
Nonetheless, CPI officials said they were inundated with phone calls and emails from people concerned that parenting really does not matter.
"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," Hilberman said.
"It's obviously not OK to list our agency, even in satire," she said.
The institute offers parenting instruction, coordinates a local child abuse council and provides children's counseling services, among other programs.
In a press release issued Friday, CPI touted its good works while dismissing any connection with The Onion story.
"The falsified study quoted in The Onion states that all parenting styles lead to the same outcome — unhappy, miserable adults," the release reads. "We have been around a long time because we know that parent education does work."
Officials at The Onion, which has offices in Chicago and New York, acknowledged that some of their stories have caused confusion in the past. Separate web sites have been set up paying homage to some of The Onion's top headlines and how readers have been duped.
"Generally people recognize The Onion and are familiar with what we do. However, there are certainly cases of confusion for those that have never heard of us," said The Onion spokeswoman Anne Finn.
Social media and lightning quick communication can deliver news, but Bowen said it's not always clear from where the information is coming.
"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."