By: Joe Strupp
Teen’s tale dupes N.Y.
Dailies caught napping in the city that never sleeps
In New York, the city that never sleeps, daily newspapers were caught napping this week when a 13-year-old Honduran boy told a tall tale of traveling 4,500 miles through rain, heat, and dangerous waters to find his long-lost father after losing his mother in a hurricane.
The tear-jerker, which landed on the front page of all four daily newspapers June 29, captured the imagination of reporters, editors, and readers as they learned about the boy’s father sending him $200 for the journey, during which he reportedly hiked, biked, and swam toward his only surviving parent.
Although some editors admit that they had doubts about the story, most put numerous reporters and photographers on the heart-rending assignment, which led to stories ranging from a priest handing the boy $5 in Miami to patrons of a coffee shop buying him a $109 bus ticket to New York.
“It is a very en-chanting tale,” says Stuart Marques, managing editor for news at the New York Post, which assigned four reporters to the story. “You don’t want to not believe it.”
Marques’ rivals at (Long Island-based) Newsday and The New York Times offered similar Page One coverage, while the Daily News went all out with six reporters assigned to the story, photos of a cab driver who helped the boy and the coffee shop where customers donated bus money, and a map detailing his alleged six-week journey.
“With any story, especially one that you plan to lead the paper with, you want to do as much as possible,” says Debby Krenek, Daily News editor in chief. “In the beginning, we thought it was a great story, and we wanted to do as much as we could.”
A day after the story first hit newsstands, however, the boy’s lie fell apart when he admitted that he had not come from Honduras in search of his father, but from Florida where he lived with an aunt and had run away from home. After The Associated Press broke the story of the hoax, each New York paper revealed the phony tale in their June 30 issues.
Marques says he wasn’t surprised that it was a fake, but had no reason to question its validity in the beginning.
“When the mayor and the police say they’ve checked it out, you have to report it,” Marques says. “We had to rely on others.”
Krenek agrees. “A lot of things in the story checked out,” she says.
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?(copyright: Editor & Publisher July 3, 1999) [Caption]