Work Sample: Comparative Media Analysis

Falcon Heene

Falcon Heene with his father, Richard Heene. Photo source: MSNBC.com

Ok, I admit it. I’m somewhat of a news junkie.

The news and its many forms is a passion of mine. I enjoy checking news sites multiple times per day to see what’s trending and I’m fascinated by how media outlets use different mediums to get the word out there (i.e. tweeting headlines via Twitter, and the increasing popularity of the social media release).

For my PR diploma, I completed a media literacy class – learning all things media-related, including the key elements of a balanced news story, how to assess current issues and how to be ‘media literate’. The “Balloon Boy” story was breaking at the time and I diligently followed every angle of it.

This case was a good example of how media may influence how you feel about a particular event or issue. How do most news stories make you feel? Angry? Sad? Sympathetic? Lucky? Unlucky? Happy?

My comparative analysis below of two separate media reports shows how the same incident can incite anger and sympathy, although both reporting on the same story….

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Comparative Analysis: Coverage of the Balloon Boy Incident

Who doesn’t love a good tale about a silver balloon flying for 50 miles across several US counties? Especially when it’s believed that a little boy is a passenger on the makeshift ‘aircraft’? It’s the making of any good children’s story. But in 2009, the case of the Balloon Boy wasn’t the work of Robert Munsch.

Balloon Boy

The silver balloon in question. Photo source: Metro.co.uk

On October 15th, 2009, news reporters and film crews produced live and continuous coverage of the flying balloon – a contraption built by Richard Heene of Colorado, USA.  The balloon was designed by Heene as part of an experimental vehicle which he hoped would have the ability to hover over traffic. He was working on his experiment when the prototype broke loose. His six-year-old son, Falcon, was believed to have crawled into the balloon before it took off because he was seen playing around it earlier that day.

News coverage of this event can only be described as fast and furious, as the coverage ranged from pondering the fate of the boy believed to be in the balloon to accusations that the whole incident was a hoax. The following two news articles focusing on the balloon incident provide two separate views and opinions on the whole balloon boy event.

The first article titled “Should balloon boy’s family pay for search?” was written by Bob Hallmark, a KLTV 7 news reporter. The article was posted on the KLTV website on the morning of October 16th, 2009, the day after the incident. Hallmark appears to have written numerous articles for KLTV, as a search for his name on the website returned more than 50 results. His resume is impressive, including some time in the US Navy as well as network director for the Houston Astros Baseball Team.

His article focuses on the costs and expenses associated with the two-hour long chase and whether or not the Heene family should be responsible for paying the bill. Hallmark provides the reader with a clear view – that the family should pay for the costs of the search – yet he does so without implicating himself in the article. He uses the perspective of “East Texans” and quotes from residents in the area to communicate this view, as well as facts to support this belief. The article states that “a national guard helicopter alone cost $4,600 an hour to operate”, which is the same figure reported in several other articles from different sources.

A quote from a resident especially supports the thesis of this article: “Somebody’s going to pay for it. Taxpayers are going to pay for it if he doesn’t.” Using quotes like this communicate a very specific message to the reader: that the family should pay for the costs. It also may incite anger or frustration from the audience as many people hate paying for someone else’s mistake or problem. These kinds of statements imply that uninvolved people, such as the taxpayers, are going to be on the hook for the costs incurred by, as some see it, the stupidity of the Heene family.

The second article titled “‘Balloon boy’ responders dealt with roller coaster of emotions<http://www.denverpost.com/ci_13586330>” was written by Kevin Vaughan for the Denver Post. Vaughan was hired as a staff writer for the Denver Post after the Rocky Mountain News closed this year. A search for his name on the Denver Post website produced many results, concentrated mostly in sports news.

Vaughan’s article was posted on the morning of October 18th, 2009, three days after the incident. Unlike Hallmark’s article, he focuses on the wide range of emotions surrounding the balloon boy. The article cites similar expense figures to Hallmark’s article, such as the thousands of dollars needed to pay for the rescue crew and equipment, as well as stating that taxpayers may be required to pay for the costs incurred by the balloon incident.

Although this sounds very similar to Hallmark’s coverage, Vaughan includes only a small section on the possible financial repercussions for the Heene family and concentrates his article on the “second toll” of the event: the emotional impact on those who responded to the 911 call from the Heene family. His article feels more like a profile piece as it describes in detail a few of the responder’s reactions to the event. He names certain individuals, such as Col. Chris Petty of the Colorado Army National Guard and search-and-rescue manager Don Davis, and tells the story of how they responded to the anticipated emergency. Vaughan uses interesting language, such as calling their jobs an “emotional mission”, to communicate to the reader how hard their jobs are.

He quotes these responders to emphasize how difficult their jobs must be and that these cases don’t always end in happiness. Instead of focusing the article on the anger felt towards the Heene family for wasting so many emergency resources, he concentrates on the “happy ending” that the responders felt they got when they learned that Falcon Heene was safe at home. His coverage of the incident provokes sympathy, not for the Heene family, but for the responders involved and their difficult jobs.

Coverage of the balloon boy event was been ongoing as of the last week of October, 2009; however, the information and status of these two articles are only current as of the date they were posted. A news report came out on October 26th that stated that an investigation into the Heene family was still ongoing; however more information was needed from the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office before any decisions to charge the family would be made.

In these two articles, two different views are successfully communicated. Bob Hallmark of KLTV focused on how the costs associated with the event will affect taxpayers; whereas Kevin Vaughan, of the Denver Post, focused on how the ordeal emotionally affected rescuers and responders. Overall, both writers’ coverage of the balloon boy incident was comprehensive, interesting and accurate, all the while providing two separate versions of the story.

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