It was one of those stories that TV newsrooms love, the story that pulls at the viewers heart strings.
It happened in Tucson, a 10-year-old boy struck and killed by a Pima County Sheriff's Deputy. But the twist as reported by KGUN and KVOA comes from the mother of the boy's best friend.
The woman told the stations that her son, distraught by what had happened, committed suicide shortly thereafter.
The woman, identified in the KGUN story as Genesee Pineda, said, "he didn't want his friend to go by himself." Pineda said her son died at UMC.
The only problem was it wasn't true.
The woman used the media attention, showing up at charity fundraisers for the boy who was killed, and family members felt distraught that she was enduring a loss similar to the one they were suffering.
The father of the boy who was killed even considered donating some of the proceeds to the woman to help with her loss.
The stations were duped by the woman and now law enforcement is now on the case to investigate what happened and if any charges can be levied.
The Tucson Weekly reports that a few days after running with the initial story, KGUN and KVOA reported concerns about what the woman had said. KGUN's retraction story featured long-time reporter Craig Smith (Smith did not file the initial report) on the phone with numerous agencies that might have information on whether the body of a second boy existed.
Smith called UMC, which had no record of the boy being admitted there. He called TMC, which said the same thing. He then used a photo provided by Pineda, which aired in the stories, only to discover through reverse imaging that the photo is of a boy featured in a recently-aired HBO documentary,Homeless, the Motel Kids of Orange County. Smith is then shown on the phone with Pascua Yaqui Police Chief Michael Valenzuela, who says there is no record of any boy recently committing suicide on tribal land. Smith then checked with the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office. No record.
All of this checking might bring up a fairly obvious question: Why didn't KGUN and KVOA check with UMC, TMC, Pascua Yaqui authorities and the Medical Examiner's Office, or say, PCSO and/or TPD,before running the story?
KGUN has been fairly mum about the situation. Journal Tucson GM Jim Arnold's brief response via e-mail: "Police are the ones to talk to. We can't comment on the situation further at this time."
That doesn't exactly answer where the breakdown was. Could it have been because the story aired on a Sunday when there's less staff, in newsrooms that have been significantly cut in terms of personnel and experience over the years?
Or that it tugged on the heartstrings, so KGUN and KVOA picked up the charge and went with it? The latter would explain why two stations ran a story about a suicide in the first place. Newsroom policy is that suicides are generally not reported.
Ginger Castallano, a manager at the Branding Iron bar, which participated in a fundraiser, toldKGUN: "When someone tells you their son committed suicide, you believe them. We believed her."
And that's obviously a natural reaction when someone shares a tragedy. Most of us are trusting enough to take it at face value. But when the media takes something at face value, or doesn't have the time or take the time or understand the processes necessary to follow through, this is what can happen.
KGUN and KVOA aren't the first to be burned, and they won't be the last. Highly respected media entities have been duped. Pulitzer Prizes have been won based on false information. It happens. I'm surprised, that in this era of instant story turnaround, this stuff doesn't occur more often. It's certainly an opportunity to reflect on whether the policies and structures currently in place are effective, and what can be done to make them more so.
It was a sad story that turned into an embarrassing and credibility killing situation for the stations.