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On January 25, 2011 a grand piano appeared on top of a sand bar in Florida’s Biscayne Bay. No note or explanation accompanied the piano, and no other objects or debris inhabited the sand bar alongside it. This essay presents and analyses three different forms of coverage of the same news story, with an eye to how one version differs in portrayal from another. Each network offered a version of news coverage that contained a slightly altered slant evident in segment presentation. In one case, a clear bias appears, most notably in portrayal of members of a social group, as well as in the sensationalist presentation of the story.
The inferred goal of news reporting, according to Lee (2005), remains to present accuracy, balance, and fairness in any and all stories (Lee, 2005). Accuracy refers to adhering specially to the facts of the story, balance measures and presents approximately an equal amount of coverage to each party privy to the story, and parties who encounter an impact from the story (Lee, 2005). Fairness refers to perspective; in Lee’s words, fairness results when “when all involved parties’ perspectives are represented, and no more favorable treatment of any side – either qualitatively or quantitatively – exists. Therefore, fairness reveals itself as a form of balance” (Lee, 2005). Media bias therefore becomes any obvious or subtle “form of preferential and unbalanced treatment, or favoritism, toward a political or social issue” (Lee, 2005). Media bias might be avoided “by remaining impartial and unprejudiced, which is the norm in the journalism profession in the United States” (Lee, 2005).
Shaw (1991) asserts that media bias remains largely accidental, and claims that those who point to bias in the media often do not “understand the dynamics of the journalistic process” (Shaw, 1991). Said bias is not toward politics or social agendas, but rather reporters tend to be “biased in favor of a good story, a juicy, controversial story that will land them on page 1 or on the network evening news” (Shaw, 1991)
This essay presents and analyses three different forms of coverage of the same news story, with an eye to how one version differs in portrayal from another. The news story under analysis takes place in Biscayne, Florida where officials discovered a grand piano on a sand bank a few hundred feet from shore. The news media coverage under review includes segments from Fox News, CNN, and ABC News. Each network offered a version of news coverage that contained a slightly altered slant evident in segment presentation. In one case, a clear bias appears, most notably in portrayal of members of a social group, as well as in the sensationalist presentation of the story.
Piano on a Sand Bar
On January 25, 2011 a grand piano appeared on top of a sand bar in Florida’s Biscayne Bay. No note or explanation accompanied the piano, and no other objects or debris inhabited the sand bar alongside it. On the whole news coverage of this story favored a human interest slant and covered the story as a charming and whimsical mystery.
FOX News often comes under scrutiny for its perceived right wing conservative slant on news issues and news coverage. Murry (2001) characterized FOX news as possessing “commercial-laden, repetitive design [that] presents stories as if they had been fired from a shotgun” (Murry, 2001). Similarly, in Murry’s (2001) analysis of the presentation of standard news stories on FOX news, segments “tend…to be less interactive, showing sound bite footage of press conferences more often than one-on-one interviews. Reporters also tend to voice over footage rather than letting people in the news speak for themselves” (Murry, 2001).
The latter is true of FOX news coverage of the piano on the sand bar story. The story segment itself runs a rapid fire 18 seconds and includes aerial as well as close up images of the grand piano on the sand bar as a FOX news reporter recounts the story in a voice over: “Folks near Miami’s Biscayne Bay not sure how this grand piano ended up all the way out on this sand bar. Whoever managed to get this massive instrument out there placed it on the sand bar’s highest point and the city says it’s leaving it there. As long as it’s not harmful to wildlife or boaters it stays right there” (FOX, 2011).
Point of view wise the FOX coverage attempts to be objective. The reporter refrains from any overt speculation as to how the piano arrived on the sand bar. No humans appear in the footage; only the piano, the ocean and the sand feature in the visual coverage. This choice allows the haunting image of the grand piano moored on a sand bar surrounded by water to speak for itself. The segment ends with a qualifying official statement from the city of Biscayne Bay officials that suggests that the officials understand the piano’s implicit allure and fascination. On the whole FOX news coverage encourages viewers to form their own theories about the story of the piano and the sand bar, which supports an objective telling.
The coverage of the grand piano on a sand bar story became a little more subjective in the ABC News example. Similar to the FOX coverage, the story moved quickly – 27 seconds in total – and relied on close ups, zoom in shots, and high aerial shots to depict the lonely obscure juxtaposition of the piano on the sand bar surrounded by ocean. ABC News also covered the story using voice over from the reporter exclusively.
Where the ABC segment differed from the FOX segment was in the quality of the reporting, as evidenced herein: “And finally when you think of a piano bar you mostly think of a piano in a bar, right? Well, here’s a mystery that’s given a whole new meaning to that term. A grand piano recently appeared on a sand bar in Biscayne Bay, Florida. Whoever put it there knew what they were doing. It’s been placed at the highest point of the sand bar so that it’s not underwater during high tide. Coast guard says that unless the piano becomes a navigation hazard they won’t touch it…or play it” (ABC, 2011).
Unlike the FOX news coverage which left the origin of the piano as mystery, the ABC News correspondent involved a human agent and speculated as to that person’s motivation, as shown by the phrase “whoever put it there knew what they were doing” (ABC, 2011). ABC News’s coverage as a result removes a bit of the charm and mysterious elements of the story by assigning a human will and motive to the piano’s appearance. ABC News coverage also included more color in the sense that the reporter spoofed the piano bar reference and ended the segment with a joke (ABC, 2011).
CNN’s coverage of this story differs significantly from that of FOX and ABC. The segment narrated by CNN reporter Jeanne Moos chooses a highly in depth and subjective slant for the story, one that essentially crushes all mystery and charm from the piece. Rather than focus exclusively on the visual impact of the piano on the sand bar, the CNN coverage includes clips from movies ranging from Disney to Casablanca, clips from local Miami news coverage, and voice overs from residents. Whereas both the FOX News and ABC News more or less allowed the image of the marooned piano to spark theories in its audience, the focus of the CNN segment remains to uncover the mystery, to assign responsibility and learn who is responsible for the piano being there.
The CNN segment the longest of the three at two minutes and 35 seconds. Similar to the ABC News coverage, the segment opens with a joke about a piano bar. “It’s not your usual piano bar, a piano on a sand bar” and then goes on to call attention to the magnetism of the piano mystery itself: “It’s so unexpected, so charming you can almost imagine a mermaid tickling the ivories. It would strike a nice cord if we could tell you that the piano was still playable but reporters who have made it out to the sand bar say no” (CNN, 2011).
Where the coverage becomes subjective is in its depiction of filmmakers William Yeager and Anais Yeager, who called CNN to take responsibility for the piano. The CNN coverage essentially reduces the piano to a publicity stunt for the Yeagers’ films, then proceeds to malign the work of the filmmakers through a series of unflattering clips from their previous films. As artists the Yeagers receive a harsh portrayal at the hands of CNN, heightened by the sarcastic and dismissive tone Jeanne Moos adopts when describing them: “instead try picturing these two lugging a piano out to Biscayne Bay…making a film called Jesus of Malibu about a spiritual journey across North America” (CNN, 2011).
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Though clips from Jesus of Malibu appear in the segment, the Yeagers do not. The highlight of the CNN story remains photos taken by Florida resident Suzanne Beard, whose spectacular shots of pelicans frolicking on the piano ended up included as one of National Geographic’s photos of the week (CNN, 2011).
In conclusion, both FOX News and ABC News chose to cover the piano on a sand bar story with a focus on the beauty of the image of the piano in the bay, with no human involvement. This choice allowed viewers to respond emotionally to the images and experience the charm of the mystery. Conversely, the CNN coverage chose a more subjective and inherently cynical slant; the CNN coverage quashed the mystery and drained the allure of the piece, as it interpreted the piano on the sand bar as nothing but a publicity stunt by two desperately untalented filmmakers.
ABC News.com. (Producer). (2011). Grand piano found on Florida sand bar. ABC News.com. Web.
CNN.com. (Producer). (2011). Marooned piano. CNN.com. Web.
FOXNews.com. (Producer). (2011). Piano turns up on Florida sandbar. FOXNews.com. Web.
Lee, T. T. (2005). The liberal media myth revisited: an examination of factors influencing perceptions of media bias. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 49 (1), 43-49. Web.
Murry, B. (2001). Fox news, fair and balanced – Not. St. Louis Journalism Review 32 (242), 4. Web.
Shaw, D. (1991). Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media. Columbia Journalism Review 29 (5) 55-58. Web.