As I read this bizarre story about the Notre Dame football player with the non-existent girlfriend, I was not only shaking my head in disbelief but laughing at those who were slamming the media for not checking more thoroughly. If you put yourself in the position of a reporter on this story, what would you have done? I mean, who would make up stuff like this?
It also brought to mind two hoaxes I've run into over the years. These are stories we ran into that sounded so real, so emotional, that they had to be true. They're not quite as elaborate as the Notre Dame tale, but we still got caught with egg on our faces. Well, more like an omelet.
-The missing mom that wasn't: So we get this report that this mother of a few small children has disappeared. The usual search begins, first with police, then the whole community. Posters are made with the woman's photo, and seen everywhere, on every storefront and telephone pole. Dozens of stories are done over several months, emotional stories focusing on the tragedy of a mother ripped from her small children. And what will become of the poor kids who had their mother taken away? Was she dead? Kidnapped but still alive? Would the kids ever see mom again?
Well, they would, because mom was shacked up down the road, alive and well.
-The Christmas Grinch: A few days before Christmas a family is spotted living under an interstate overpass in the cold weather. Stories are done on the family's plight, and the community comes forward with a ton of Christmas spirit. A landlord offers a place to live. Viewers come by and donate a ton of stuff... clothes, furnishings, you name it. And of course plenty of people drop by with cash.
This seemed like a great story to shoot on Christmas morning... the homeless family in a nice warm place, opening presents, enjoying their new home in their new clothes.
Alas, they were long gone. Apparently this was simply a scam designed to prey on the generosity of others.
I dare say there are probably very few reporters who would have dug up the truth on either of these before it came to light. The key to a good hoax is believability, and, apparently, emotion. Sometimes the story sounds so real that it seems impossible that it could be false.... and that's why the hoax works.