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.