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The balloon boy reality: Media is vulnerable to hoaxes

Sheree Silver compares it to sitting inside a tornado: what it feels like when the world's media turns its attention toward you at once.

The publicity storm came to Silver's doorstep on Thursday, as Richard Heene captured the world's attention for hours, claiming his 6-year-old son, Falcon, may have been trapped in a runaway helium balloon near Denver.

Because the St. Augustine mother had briefly joined Heene's family last year as part of ABC's unscripted show Wife Swap, Silver became an always-accessible guide to the eccentric family's tangled media history. She confirmed the father's intense desire to star in his own reality TV series in dozens of interviews ranging from CNN's Larry King Live to a radio show in New Zealand.

Now that police in Colorado say the entire incident was a hoax, she raises another question: As fame-seeking pranksters look to game media into publicizing their issues, can an increasingly hungry 24/7 news structure avoid playing along?

"(First) you were talking about a child being 10,000 feet in the air … then it became criminal — a man who literally told all these family members and people that his son was up there," said Silver, 50, a self-proclaimed psychic and hypnotherapist who insisted media outlets had to cover the incident closely. "What else could the media do?"

The same dynamic emerged Monday as noted liberal pranksters the Yes Men fooled news outlets such as CNBC and Reuters wire service into reporting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had reversed its position on climate change legislation.

As Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank reported Tuesday, the group had even created a fake Web site and held a fake news conference. The whole stunt seemed calibrated to fool journalists poised to instantly report startling news from reputable sources after cursory checks.

The problem was summed up by Clay Shirky, an author and social media expert, on his Twitter page: "The 'Runaway Balloon Drama' illustrates two things: fact-checking is way down, and after-the-fact checking is way, WAY up."

But in Colorado, news outlets didn't just automatically jump into reporting Heene's cry for help.

At KUSA-TV in Denver on Thursday, news director Patti Dennis recalled a desk manager telling her that someone was calling around 11 a.m. to say his child might be trapped in a balloon resembling a flying saucer.

After checking to make sure she heard correctly, Dennis called Heene back, spoke to a sheriff's deputy in the home and confirmed the identity of that deputy before airing news reports on the emergency nearly an hour later.

"When four or five law enforcement agencies treat the situation like a child in peril, we don't have any other choice (but to cover it)," Dennis said. "It was like an Amber Alert. Except we thought the child happened to be in this crazy, Mylar balloon."

Once local news outlets began providing continuous footage of the duct-taped craft floating, it became an irresistible magnet for cable TV news channels and online sites.

"Unfortunately, it was the perfect setup for the media to go overboard," said Joanne Ostrow, TV critic for the Denver Post, who wrote a story Friday criticizing some coverage, including one station that mistakenly announced the boy was inside the balloon and safe after it landed. "There wasn't enough recapping saying what we don't know. … It's queasy territory."

Many news outlets are still breaking important news stories and offering in-depth reporting. Still, there seem to be a few reasons why today's media are vulnerable to such schemes:

The spread of a Twitter-bred repeat culture in media. Those who frequent the microblogging site Twitter know users often pass along attention-getting messages quickly, particularly if they come from trusted sources. With mainstream newspapers and TV outlets focused on getting important news published as soon as possible, the instinct to pass along news tidbits has increased.

The need to break through media clutter. With consumers drowning in data, stories that can keep a TV audience from changing channels or Web site users from surfing away are valued.

The thirst for real-life drama trumps traditional ideas of news importance. Liberal pundit Arianna Huffington and conservative columnist/actor Ben Stein agreed during a CNN appearance Monday: More important stories were unfolding Thursday during the Heenes' saga.

But viewers and Web surfers easily demonstrate which stories draw their attention. So perhaps media outlets are just delivering the kind of instant coverage the audience demands.

"I don't even think law enforcement screwed up (because) the risk of telling this guy, 'You're crazy,' was just too great," said KUSA's Dennis. "(But) nobody's going to pull this off again. If a child is trapped in a device or a well and the call goes out, everybody's going to laugh and say they're crying wolf."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

The balloon boy reality: Media is vulnerable to hoaxes 10/20/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 11:01pm]

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