FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK | Balloon boy’s questions for journalism

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The phony balloon boy story made headlines across the country, and raised questions about how the police and media got taken for a ride by a couple of unprincipled headline-hunters. Just in case you missed it, the story began when a frantic father called the police and media to tell them that his six-year-old son had climbed aboard a flying saucer-shaped helium balloon and drifted away into the sky and ended when the balloon landed, with no child inside, and the boy was found hiding in a garage.

A week after the October 15 publicity stunt, the mother admitted it was a hoax. Reuters reported:

According to a copy of a search warrant affidavit posted on the website of Fort Collins newspaper “The Coloradoan,” Mayumi told investigators she and her husband lied to authorities and knew their son Falcon was at home as rescue teams tracked the balloon believing the boy was inside.

“The motive for the fabricated story was to make the Heene family more marketable for future media interest,” the affidavit states.

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute talked to news director Patti Dennis at KUSA in Denver to find out how and why the newsroom decided to run the story. Dennis grilled the father, asking his son’s full name, what school he attended, why he wasn’t in school, why the police had not been called. Very soon, however, Dennis heard from a police officer on the scene:

Then I asked for his name, badge number and his supervisor’s name. At that time, Officer Jake Bowser told me “Ma’am, this is the real deal.”

A healthy skepticism is essential for good newspeople, but when the cops tell you the story is real, that is pretty strong confirmation. KUSA launched their news helicopter and started reporting the story.

Once they began reporting, tips from viewers started coming in, pointing out that Heene and his wife had been on the Wife Swap television program. As the newsroom began tracking down this second line of information, the story exploded across the country. Online KUSA page views jumped from the normal 750,000 to one million page views per day to 4.6 million on October 15.

Poynter asked Dennis about lessons learned from the story. The lessons she cited are not exactly new, but worth repeating:

There are more and more people who are likely to fool and manipulate the media. You must have a process of vetting the consumer contributions to journalism. Everyone in the newsroom must be diligent in checking tips and calls. We get hundreds of tips each week.

We spend a lot of time trying to determine if there is a story and how to work around the agenda the news tipper probably has.

The “consumer contributions” that Dennis talks about are essential to news reporting. In the balloon boy story, these contributions were not only the self-interested call made by father Richard Heene, but also the calls from other people who were suspicious and told the station about the Heene family background.

Here at the TC Daily Planet, we encourage “consumer contributions” in a number of ways, and are working to make the website even more accessible for direct contributions. While we republish lots of stories from our community media partners and also assign Daily Planet original stories to citizen journalists and other freelance writers, we also have space for direct contributions.

Each of our articles carries a byline that tells who wrote it and what publication it belongs to. So, if a byline reads, “by Charles Hallman, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder,” it was written for, edited by and originally published by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, one of our community media partners. Our media partners edit and stand behind their own stories.

On the other hand, if a story’s byline reads, “by Sheila Regan, TC Daily Planet,” then that’s our story, written for the Daily Planet. We edit and fact-check our Daily Planet original stories.

Other stories are published in our Free Speech Zone. These are submitted to us by readers, but not edited by the Daily Planet. We offer the Free Speech Zone as a free space for reader submissions, whether or not they meet journalistic standards. Some of these may be substantial news stories, but we just do not have the time to edit everything, and our byline goes only on edited stories.

Many people want to tell us about news, but do not want to write about it. Sometimes they email a story idea or tip. That, too is a valuable way to participate in the news process, and we welcome ideas and tips.

Al Tompkins wrote another interesting column about Chicago’s WFLD-TV decision to pay for and show a video of 16-year-old Derrion Albert being beaten to death on a Chicago street. Aside from the information about that specific news decision (which you can read in Tompkins’ column), he offered this thoughtful conclusion:

Fowler’s essay and availability to answer questions about how her station did what it did builds credibility.

The public needs to know how and why we do what we do. Without knowing the backstory, it is natural for the public to think everything we do is a ratings (or circulation) grab.

We are now publishing From the Editor’s Desk as a regular Monday feature, for a behind-the-scenes look at “how and why we do what we do.”