By NATHAN FULK
I really don’t need to fill you in here. If you’ve been within a stone’s throw of the letter “B” in the last week or so, then you’ve heard the story of the little boy who cried “possibly lethal fall” last week, and chances are, you’re sick of hearing about it.
So I’ll be brief.
Hoaxes like this have been happening since Man, in his questionable wisdom, invented the desperate call-for-attention. The only difference between then and now is that there is no grace period, no time to verify a fact or investigate a motive, when you’ve got a website and 24 hours of airtime to fill.
This has serious consequences. The Balloon Boy story (or lack thereof) had been reported dozens of times per channel before anyone even began to question if it was a publicity stunt. In fact, they had already come up with the snappy nickname. That was probably the first thing they did.
As a result, an entire nation was let down by their news sources. You can blame the parents, who cooked up the sad scheme, but we all saw footage of that balloon; it looked like Gene Roddenberry’s kite. It didn’t look like it could lift off with a person, no mater what age, inside.
No one even questioned the convenient and poorly-directed takeoff film, where Falcon’s voice is obviously closer to the microphone than his parents’.
So we got fooled. Not just the police, nor the news men, but we all did. However, a journalist’s primary responsibility is to the truth, and therefore, separating it from half-baked deception.
The result of this, of course, is that we stop believing the funny, outlandish stuff that makes for really great news stories. According to a study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 62% of respondents “say that news stories are often inaccurate.” That’s the lowest level in two decades. Something’s wrong here.
What can be done to cure this epidemic of cynicism? According to an AP commentary piece about this loss of credibility, “a bigger dose of skepticism and caution… a phone call to double-check.”
The world at large has been disillusioned by balloon scandals and fake celebrity deaths. They feel like news agencies aren’t questioning enough, so people need to be more skeptical to conpensate. The public-media relationship, like any lasting relationship, is based on trust. Choosing speed of service over reliability has breached that contract, and it is up to us to prove that we can be as discerning as our ethical code demands.
Has there been a change in expectations? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Am I making a zeppelin out of a weather balloon here, or what?!