‘Balloon boy’ exposes media hollowness

Cable news overexposing the “balloon boy” event is best exemplified on the Oct. 16 “News in :90,” where Ashley Bolkcom spends about 20 seconds on the subject, then moves on. In the background, CNN covers balloon boy for all 90 seconds.

In this case, St. Thomas’ student-run news organization arguably displayed more concise and sober news judgment, analysis and coverage than the network branding itself “The Most Trusted Name in News.”

TommieMedia spent much less time covering balloon boy than CNN did, but still managed to accurately cover the story for what it was proven to be: a claim, which grew into a national event that was later proven unfounded.

Bolkcom explained how a 6-year-old in Colorado and a weather balloon became a national story, wrapped it up and then moved on to a more substantial news event.

Meanwhile, more than half of CNN’s coverage during the Oct. 16 “News in :90” run time consisted of press interviews with the Heene family or recycled footage of the balloon’s flight. The coverage would continue all weekend.

While TommieMedia summarized the story in less time than it takes some people to tie their shoes, CNN provided a nonjudgmental national spotlight for much of the weekend.

The story’s real break came Saturday, when the sheriff’s office declared the event a hoax. Despite days-long media saturation, no news teams on the scene were able to get this scoop before hearing it from police.

CNN’s tagline as the balloon drifted to Earth Thursday afternoon was “Breaking News: Boy Floats Away in Balloon,” which was both alarming and incorrect.

Balloons are subject to physical laws and their behavior can be predicted. Someone who knew about gas laws could have evaluated whether such a balloon could have made it to 7,000 feet with a child inside.

Helium is expensive, but buoyancy properties are available in any chemistry textbook and an educated hypothesis could have been shared with the audience, before focusing the nation’s attention on a two-hour weather balloon flight.

A writer for Popular Science estimated that the helium balloon could have achieved flight with the boy inside only “if the balloon material and any attached components weighed less than about nine pounds.” CNN knows scientists and the network could have addressed this instead of covering the balloon boy stunt like it was a celebrity death.

Speculation and chatter overtook newsgathering and verifying on cable TV. And even if this story inspires Halloween costumes, the overkill reflects poorly on a network we’re supposed to be learning from. News on a 24-hour feed is especially nauseating when it’s devoted to a single, undeserved subject.

Sometimes it only takes 90 seconds.

4 Replies to “‘Balloon boy’ exposes media hollowness”

  1. This claim that news in 90 is some how better than CNN is completely preposterous.
    1. Hind sight is 20-20. Your criticizing CNN after the fact. It just so happened that news in 90 was slightly more correct than CNN, there wasn’t any inherent genius on 90’s part.
    2. the reason why 90 did it in 20 was because 90 only gets 20. CNN has more time and therefore can allocate it differently.
    3. CNN made more money off of the story than 90. I wonder who really told it better.
    4. CNN did cover the physics involved via the sheriffs pres-conference when better facts were known about the dimensions of the balloon.
    5. CNN got the story out to more people and therefore did a better informative job than 90. That CNN spent more time on the story inherently assisted this both because it increased the probability of people seeing the story (unlike on tommie media’s web site the tv doesn’t have a paws button). Also lengthening the story likely made it more accessible to the lowest common denominator that can’t focus well.
    6. You bite into the over kill point just as much as CNN does because your further covering the story so the over kill bad is non unique and doesn’t matter.
    7. CNN’s tag-line described what CNN thought the truth was. it’s not like they didn’t report that the boy wasn’t there when it happened.
    8. to add more arguments ill link to genocide. Advocating that one news source is better than another functions to suspend the public’s disbelief by unofficially restricting their access to only one source of information. Noam Chomsky explained how this suspension of disbelief can cause genocide at a 10/8/09 meting of the Common Wealth Club of California saying ” …Im thinking about the part that has substantive content crazy content but it is substantive. it does give answers. i mean to people who for the last thirty years have seen their wages income stagnate or decline benefits decline services decline…. …and so on. you know there not wrong this is all happening to them and the answers their getting from say rush limbah mickle savage the rest of them are well we have an answer. the rich liberals own everything…. …they dont care about people like you… …they only care about giving everything you worked for away to illegal immigrants or gays or something… Now thats an answer to something. It’s a terrible answer but it is an answer and if you do suspend disbelief its a coherent answer. Now they’re not hearing anything else. now the memory that comes to my mind. and i don’t want to press the analogy too hard but i think its worth thinking is late Weimar Germany. There were people with real grievances. the Nazis gave them an answer: its the fault of the Jews and the Bolsheviks and we’ve got to protect ourselves from them and that will take care of your grievances and we know what happened.”
    The point is we can’t go about valuing various media sources. They all should be herd lest we exclude an idea that if herd would prevent madness.
    9. Nuke war… nahh. i don’t want to do more research tonight since i don’t have the cards on hand to get the nuke war links to work. i guess ill leave it at .

  2. Dont forget the fact that ALL news networks covered it pretty uniformly Including FOX. But, of-course you are correct that it was absolutely ridiculous that it even made the news. Its ridiculous that UST even covered it. It was a balloon and a kid in the attic….is there news in that?

  3. It’s easy for those who’ve never been reporters or those of us who were reporters to criticize the news judgment and coverage decisions, especially when those judgments and decisions are on breaking news that turns out to be more or less than it seemed when the news was breaking. Which is inherently the point. Long long ago in j-school, Dr. Connery told us that journalism is history on the run. Sometimes we would get it right. Sometimes we’d get it wrong. But we wouldn’t have the luxury to know that at the time. You do the best you can with the information you have and put it all in perspective later. And that was before the churn of 24-hour news. In many ways, we’ve created our own low standards and coverage seemingly only of the innane. We demand the interesting, the unusual, the scandalous, the oh-dear-God. Sometime look at the stories featured in the most-emailed or most-viewed sections of any news site. Those stories aren’t those of the horrors of Darfur or the pain of poverty. The vast majority of time they cover Anna Nicole Smith, OJ Simpson, Denny Hecker, Tom Petters and, yes, balloon boy. News is a business and a trade and a commodity and a craft with a multitude of stakeholders and interest groups and audiences, all of whom demand exactly what they want and vote with their feet and clicks of their mouse. Can the media do better? Absolutely. But so can those of us watching and reading their wares.

  4. One item Zack Thielke overlooked was what makes good TV… good cable TV… good cable news TV? It’s GOOD PICTURES. Yes, there are journalistic questions that need to be asked about this story and why it was given so much coverage, but it’s the medium that Mr. Thielke overlooked. Having worked in local television staions for the last 15 years, this story is a dream come true. What would the average viewer watch… live coverage of a balloon sailing off with the possiblity of a six-year-old boy inside or economic experts debating another round of governement bailouts? I can tell you what I would have watched and I’d bet one month’s salary the ratings would favor the balloon boy. Sad but true. Many times good pictures trump a lot of other worthy news coverage and many times these ‘great pictures” give a story more importance than it deserves. Had there not been live video of the balloon, the amount of coverage would have severely been diminished. It’s why some stories are great in the New York Times, but are boring on World News Tonight. I began my career producing local newscasts in 1994… just in time for the O.J. Simpson trial, the Tonya Harding – Kerrigan attack and the Lorana Bobbit attack on her husband. Do any of these stories deserve the amount of coverage they received? No. But they made for good TV. Again, sad but true.

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