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'Boy in Balloon' Captivates Media: Did They Blow the Story?

By Greg Mitchell

Published: October 15, 2009 4:00 PM ET updated 4:25

NEW YORK 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 miles away and rescuers rushing there, expecting the worst. Instead, no boy was found inside.

Did he 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."

Later the boy was found--hiding in the attic of his home.

In any case, the press and news agencies reported for hours that a boy was in the balloon, without many qualifiers, even though the only witness was a sibling who claimed to have seen 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 boy in it were "unverified" and raised the possibility of 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.



Greg Mitchell (gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is editor.

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