Did Balloon Boy's reporters float to False Conclusions?
by Large Even-Paced Creature on April 21, 2017 - 2:37pm
In October of 2009, Colorado father Richard Heene released a prototype for air travel accidentally after forgetting to tether it to a secure frame. One of Heene’s three sons told him that his youngest son, Falcon Heene, had crawled into the base before it had lifted off, and panic ensued. After travelling roughly 60 miles, the balloon landed two hours after it was released, and to the surprise of the parents, news reporters, and greater public watching the event, Falcon was nowhere to be seen. After fearing that the child had fallen out somewhere along the 7000-foot-high journey, it is reported that Falcon had been inside the attic of the Heene family garage the whole time – he hadn’t even left the house. After a live slip-up on a live interview, it is suspected that the whole incident was a hoax in an attempt to garner attention, among other things. After a guilty plea from both parents, most news networks were happy to call this an open and shut case, but one anonymous stranger online who calls himself the Internet Historian decided to take it further, looking past what might seem apparent and ultimately building a case in defense of Richard Heene (Internet Historian 2017). The result calls the whole incident into question, and suggests that the matter should be looked into furher. One must then ask if there are ethical obligations for news networks to dig deeper into stories that may seem obvious at first, or if they are justified in taking what could be seen as an easy way out, labelling the whole thing as a hoax and calling it a day.
In the latter half of the video, Internet Historian describes five pieces of evidence against the Heenes, which he then picks apart one by one. One of the main arguments was when Falcon Heene slipped up on a live television interview, claiming that he was instructed to hide “for the show”. In an interview with a reporter for Oprah Winfrey, Falcon provided an explanation as to why he has said what he had said:
Well what happened was, this Chinese reporter walked up to me, he asked if I could show him how he got in the attic for his TV show. So I said okay, and then after that, another person asked me ‘So what happened about this balloon thing?’ ‘I did it for the show.’ I said that cause I thought he was talking about the Chinese guy. (New Times 2014)
The unlikely explanation was vague and open to interpretation, but it was indeed within the realm of possibility. Another argument was that both parents had confessed to the hoax, which might have seemed like the last word in the discussion for most news companies. However, Internet Historian argues the legitimacy of Richard’s wife Mayumi’s confession. Mayumi had confessed that the hoax was devised two weeks prior to the event. But the Heene family had appeared on the TV show Wife Swap, where the wife Richard had swapped with Mayumi has been noted saying how she had to clean the balloon. The filming of that Wife Swap episode took place in January of 2009, a full 9 months before they were alleged to have begun their hoax, which contrasts with the two weeks it was supposed to have taken, according to Mayumi’s affidavit. A third though less used argument is that the balloon couldn’t have lifted Falcon, which Internet Historian disproves with the use of simple calculations at 6:25 into the video, stating that not only could the balloon suspend Falcon, but it could do so with extra weight to spare. This fact is corroborated by Adam Weiner’s article in Popular Science using a more accurate scientific approach. In his calculations, the buoyancy of the balloon was included, along with gravitational forces calculated using Newton’s laws. Weiner ends his calculations stating that “we’re right on the borderline. We’ve got 9 pounds left over.” (Weiner 2009). All of these arguments (as well as the others that were not mentioned in this essay) do not prove or disprove anything, they merely suggest that what the media is broadcasting is not necessarily the full story. But should they broadcast the full story at all?
If the case for the Heenes is as plausible as it is, then news companies have a moral obligation to get to the bottom of what is happening and broadcast it publicly. In Stephanie Craft’s text “Press Freedom and Responsibility”, Craft describes Timothy Cook, who summarizes James Curran by “[identifying] five specific needs of democracy that the news media system can (and should) fulfill: representation, deliberation, conflict resolution, accountability, and information dissemination” (Craft 2010). The first three of these needs, according to Cook, function in tandem to create a space where everyone can be heard and communicate with each other, with the goal of solving conflicts. These aspects were lacking if not completely absent during the Heene’s trial; the lack of representation did not allow the Heenes to deliberate appropriately in light of the allegations they have been accused of to resolve their conflict with the county Sheriff pressing the fact that the whole ordeal was a hoax and an attention grab. However, there is the utilitarian’s counterargument: In Merrill’s overview “Theoretical Foundations for Media Ethics”, the description of utilitarianism is provided with reference to the media: “What [utilitarianism] means for the media person making an ethical decision is that he or she would determine which of several possible courses of action would bring about the most happiness or the greatest good for the greatest number of people” (Merrill 2012). The argument exists that the harm (or more specifically, diverted work and pay) associated with sending journalists to cover one family instead of potentially reporting on more pressing matters is trumped by the good of appeasing to the public albeit at the cost of the Heenes, making further investigation pointless.
It is important to note that nowhere in his video does the Internet Historian claim that the Heene family is innocent, nor does he deem them guilty; he simply argues that the matter has not been looked into enough, and the media were quick to put the issue to bed. The news media did have moral obligation to find a determinate truth and bring justice to the Heene family, however the lack of investigations deems the news media unethical in this situation. Whether this matter serves as a lesson for future reportings remains to be seen.
 It is also worth noting that Mayumi, of Japanese descent, does not speak English well and stated that she did not know the meaning of the word “hoax” at the time of the confession.
Associated Press. “Mayumi Heene may have confessed to protect kids in balloon hoax investigation.” Daily News. 27 Oct. 2009, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/mayumi-heene-confessed-protect-...
Craft, Stephanie. “Press Freedom and Responsibility,” in Journalism Ethics: A Philosophical Approach (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2010).
Funcheon, Deirdra. “Oprah Catches Up with "Balloon Boy" Flying Saucer Family; Richard Heene Insists ‘It Was Never a Hoax’”. New Times. 17 Feb. 2014, http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/news/oprah-catches-up-with-balloon-boy-f...
Internet Historian. “Ballon Boy | The Untold Story.” Youtube. 19 Apr. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWhUvm8SunY
Merrill, John C. “Theoretical Foundations for Media Ethics,” in Controversies in Media Ethics (Routeledge, 2012).
Weiner, Adam. “The Physics of the Balloon Boy.” Popular Science. 19 Oct. 2009, http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2009-10/physics-balloon-boy