Tragic story or hoax? TV media and the press for hours today covered the saga of a 6-year-old boy who allegedly climbed into a homemade balloon aircraft in Colorado and floated away. Live TV showed the balloon coming down miles away and rescuers rushing there, expecting the worst. Instead, no boy was found inside.
Some of us weren't surprised--I'd been tweeting that likely outcome for almost an hour, noting the lack of sourcing and the floating of the craft which suggested no payload.
Did the boy--improbably named Falcon--fall out en route? Or was it all a hoax perpetrated by his father, who is "storm chaser" and appeared on the reality TV show "Wife Swap"?
Now the boy has been found--in the attic of his home.
Just before that, CNN was focusing on a deputy sheriff's claim to have seen an "object" fall from the craft at one point early on. They even posted a photo that some said may have shown that.
In any case, the press and news agencies reported for over an hour that a boy was in the balloon, without any qualifiers, even though the only witness was a sibling who saw him climb inside.
The AP stories and updates opened with: "A 6-year-old boy climbed into a homemade balloon aircraft in Colorado and floated away Thursday, forcing officials to scramble to figure out how to rescue the boy as the balloon hurtled through the air."
Even when the craft came down, and some doubts about boy's presence had begun to be aired, AP sent a bulletin: "Balloon carrying 6-year-old boy slowly descends into Colorado field; child's fate unclear."
Reuters had reported: "A 6-year-old boy who climbed into a small homemade helium balloon at his family's home was flying out of control above Colorado Thursday as authorities scrambled to try to rescue him."
At least the BBC had added, "reportedly."
Only after the crash did TV hosts stress that reports of a boy in it were "unverified" and raised the possibility of a hoax. Few had raised the issue of whether such a balloon could even lift off with a 50-pound kid inside, and then float the way it did. Some did later. CNN had an expert do the calculations. But, of course, the experts could be wrong.
Shep Smith on Fox repeated referred to the craft as like a "Jiffy Pop" container.
But it was the media's credibility that popped.
UPDATE: Tonight on CNN, Wolf Blitzer asked the boy why he didn't come out of hiding when he heard his name being shouted. He replied that he had been told "it was for a show." His father then appeared extremely uneasy. Meaning unclear.
Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher. His latest book is "Why Obama Won."