By Rob Woollard (AFP) – Oct 20, 2009
LOS ANGELES — Journalistic lessons from the "balloon boy" hoax are likely to go unheeded by media outlets desperate to meet the voracious demands of the 24-hour news cycle, analysts say.
For several hours on Thursday, Richard Heene's publicity stunt mesmerized US networks as they scrambled to broadcast live footage of the flying-saucer shaped balloon feared to be carrying his six-year-old son.
Yet within 48 hours the drama was exposed as a sham, leaving many outlets wondering how they had been duped by a man who claims to be a descendant of aliens and who once had a close encounter in a fast-food restaurant bathroom.
Heene -- who police say concocted the hoax with his family in a bid to land a reality television show -- had a well-documented history of eccentric behavior which should have given networks pause, experts say.
"There were multiple indicators that should have triggered at least yellow lights of caution," said Kenny Irby, visual journalism director at the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism school based in Florida.
"The family's involvement in reality television, the mixed messages of the siblings -- those factors should have required us to ask more questions and at least be more thoughtful about our response."
Irby said the fact that so many cable television news networks interrupted their schedules to cover the story reflected the increasing emphasis given by media outlets to speed above accuracy.
"We have to acknowledge that speed has become much more of a factor in our coverage as opposed to authenticating facts and issues of accuracy and credibility," he told AFP.
"A lot of media companies just want to 'be in the game' as opposed to being right about what they are reporting."
Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said while there were lessons to be learned from the episode, they would likely be ignored.
"The 'balloon boy' story was a wake-up call to the media but it's a wake-up call that every single one of us is going to sleep through," he told AFP.
"If something like this happens the day after tomorrow, it will be covered in exactly the same way and we will watch it in exactly the same way."
"Just imagine if a TV network receives a distress signal from a man flying a plane who says 'My pregnant wife is with me and she's having triplets and the landing gear won't release.'
"Regardless of 'balloon boy' we would have media choppers and cameras on that plane in a second. No one would wait to see if it's a stunt or a hoax. We'd cover it first and ask questions later."
Thompson cited the proliferation of television networks and different media platforms as the engines of the modern news cycle.
"There are two technological phenomena driving this -- one is television satellite trucks and the ability to broadcast from anywhere, and two is an unlimited number of platforms to place this stuff."
Ted Mandell, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame's film, television and theater department, said the demands of the news cycle were responsible for creating a climate of "hysterical journalism."
"Before the Internet, before CNN, you had the Six O'Clock news and that was pretty much it," Mandell told AFP.
"Now it's instantaneous -- there's no research, no thoughtful producing. It's all about getting a story, getting it on the air and getting viewers.
"And what that translates into is this kind of hysterical journalism which feeds on itself. There really is no perspective anymore."
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