February 6, 2009

Bloggers Contemplate the Economy, Rush, and Zombies

PEJ New Media Index Jan. 26 - 30, 2009

Outrage over economic troubles, President Barack Obama’s comments about a radio talk host, and a Texas-sized practical joke captured the attention of bloggers, user news sites and other social media last week. On YouTube, the top news video was Obama’s weekly address, focused on his economic stimulus plan.

While traditional press concentrated overwhelmingly on the economic crisis and the stimulus plan, the new media’s attention was equally divided among three diverse subjects—the villains of the financial meltdown, Obama’s decision to criticize Rush Limbaugh, and jokesters who changed a road sign to warn of a “zombie attack.” The two politically oriented stories gave rise to often intense discussions, with ideological finger pointing on all sides.

These are some of the findings of the second edition of a new feature by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The New Media Index is an effort by PEJ to monitor the content appearing in new media platforms. The biggest element of this Index is what appears in the more than 100 million blogs and other social media web pages concerned with national news and public affairs tracked by two monitoring sites, Technorati and Icerocket. Both track the commentary online by identifying what news stories bloggers and other websites link to. Each weekday, PEJ captures the top linked-to stories and analyzes their content. It then compares those findings with the results of its weekly analysis of more mainstream media, the weekly News Coverage Index. The Project also tracks the most popular news videos on YouTube each week.

From Jan. 26-30, three stories generated almost the same amount of embedded links. The ongoing financial crisis generated the most discussion, representing 15% of the links in the new media. The story about the altered road sign and Obama’s advice to Republicans not to heed Limbaugh each garnered 14% of the links.

The economic crisis was also the leading story in the mainstream media last week, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. But it attracted far more attention in traditional media than among bloggers and social media. Almost half (45% of the newshole) of the mainstream media’s coverage was devoted to the economy. The second-largest story in the mainstream media, though, the scandal that led to Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s Jan. 29 ouster, was not even in the top 10 stories in blogs and social media. The new Obama Administration was No. 3 in both, though with different emphases.

Rounding out the top five stories among bloggers was a medical warning—a study that discovered high-fructose corn syrup may contain traces of mercury (9% of all links) followed by problems associated with the case files for Guantanamo Bay detainees, also at 9%. While present in the traditional media, neither of these two stories was among the top 10 last week.

Another difference between the new and traditional media was in the top sports stories last week. The largest sports story in the mainstream press (ranked 4th overall) was the run-up to the Super Bowl. Among bloggers, however, the Super Bowl didn’t even make the top 10. Instead, the ninth largest story in social media, with 4% of the embedded links, was a New York Post report on a book by former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre that included some unflattering mentions of superstar Alex Rodriguez.

PEJ has launched the New Media Index as a companion to its weekly News Coverage Index. Blogs and other new media are an important part of creating today’s news information narrative and in shaping the way Americans interact with the news. The expansion of online blogs and other social media sites has allowed news consumers and others outside the mainstream press to have more of a role in agenda setting, dissemination and interpretation. PEJ aims to find out what subjects in the national news the new media sites focus on, and how that compared with the narrative in the traditional press.

While the troubles and frustration over the weak U.S. economy have been building for some time, last week saw an explosion of outrage among bloggers and social media. Much of the discussion followed several different events during the week, in each case largely aimed at who was to blame for the problems and how certain people seemed to be taking advantage of the current situation.

When the New York Post reported on Jan. 26 that beleaguered banking company Citigroup was planning to purchase a $50 million French-made corporate jet (in an article headlined, “Just Plane Despicable”) despite its tanking stock prices and the billions it received from a government bailout, bloggers erupted with anger and charges of hypocrisy.

"Seriously, who the heck do they [Citigroup] think they are?" wrote Fools and Sages. "Is it just me or is the griping about average Americans having entitlement issues getting a little tired when we see fat cats like these executives thumbing their noses at the taxpayer by using their money to buy a jet that costs $4 million PER SEAT?"

"When do taxpayers get to ride the Dassault Falcon 7X that Citi bought with our tax dollars?" Paxalles asked rhetorically, highlighting the fact that the plane seats up to 12 in plush leather seats with a customizable entertainment center.

Many voiced similar accusations of greed and waste by against the company, yet others felt that lawmakers who gave out taxpayer money were to blame for not providing enough oversight.

"What DID Congress expect? Did they really expect these executive leopards to change their spots just because there were a few federal dollars involved in the mix?" wrote the blogger The Lady Logician. "Everyone in Congress and the White House is mad that this money got spend the way it did and they are whining about lack of oversight. HELLOOOOO you guys had the power to instill oversight and YOU shirked your responsibility to the people and now you want to complain about how the money was spent?"

Those looking to finger the culprits for the current economic mess were given more fodder by a Jan. 26 article published by the British paper, the Guardian, entitled, “Twenty-five people at the heart of the meltdown…” Editor Julia Finch identified 25 individuals who she said were responsible, starting with former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, and including politicians such as Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and George W. Bush, bankers such as Abby Cohen of Goldman Sachs and Hank Greenberg of AIG, and “others” including the American public and Icelandic prime minister Geir Haarde.

The response to Finch’s list was mixed, with some commending her and others seeing a partisan attempt to influence the public’s view of how the crisis began. Regardless of the reaction, frustration over the world-wide economic troubles was present throughout almost all of the critiques.

Liberals attacked the list as a wrong-headed attempt to blame the current crisis on Democrats. "The first [politician] it names is, unbelievably, Bill Clinton," comments The V Effect. "It certainly looks like the media are going to try to do everything they can to tie the Great Depression II around the necks of the Democrats, powerless though they’ve been for the past eight years."

Conservatives had their problems with the list as well. Dan Collins, posting on the blog Protein Wisdom wondered why the Democratic Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Barney Frank, was "strangely absent."

On Jan. 28, the House of Representatives passed Obama’s stimulus bill without a single Republican vote. By then, many bloggers changed their focus to Obama’s tactics and efforts at bipartisanship. Linking to a Thursday report about the vote on the Washington Post web site, Ari Berman of the Nation decided that it was not good policy for Obama to reach out to Republican’s for their ideas without getting any votes. But it was good politics. "Following the GOP rejection," he declared, "Obama looks gracious and inclusive-and his bill still passed, thanks to a comfortable Democratic majority in the House. His GOP opponents look like, for lack of a better phrase, spoiled brats."

Others, however, felt the Republicans were right to have stood in opposition. "Obambi got his ‘stimulus’ package through the House, but without a single GOP vote. Considering that most of the stimulus isn’t stimulus, many of the ‘tax cuts’ don’t go to taxpayers, and no earmarks were added because they were already built in, this was a laudable thing," wrote Libertyblog.

Even with Obama’s central role in the stimulus package, however, his behind-the-scenes comment about conservative talk king Rush Limbaugh gained almost as much attention. Fully 14% of the embedded links online last week were geared to stories of Obama’s Administration, with the vast majority focused on one remark reported by the New York Post on Jan. 26. In a meeting with House Republicans on the stimulus bill. Obama was reported to have told them, "You can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done."

The specter of an Obama-Limbaugh conflict was too good to pass up for many, most notably supporters of Limbaugh. "This little episode shows that Obama is just inexperienced in the political realm," determined Syd and Vaughn on the blog Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. "He [Obama] just gave him [Limbaugh] a ton of free publicity. He also gave him more attention which means people are going to tune into his show and hear what he has to say about this little dust-up. Like him or not, the last thing any politician should do is draw attention to a very popular media figure, especially one that gets 20 million-plus listeners a day."[1]

Limbaugh, never one to shy away from the spotlight, responded to the report in an interview with the National Review, claiming that Obama was trying to make the debate over the stimulus package an argument about him rather than the plan itself.

"Rush is exactly right, as usual," agreed The Hammond Report. "Rather then debate the merits and try to convince the public the bailout or stimulus plan is good and will work, Obama goes after Rush and his opposition."

While some liberals were concerned that Obama’s comment elevated Limbaugh, others felt it was a shrewd move. Writing on the Talking Points Memo café, blogger Zipperupus claimed that Obama highlighted Limbaugh so that the controversial talk-show host would be seen as the face of conservative opposition to Obama’s stimulus plan. Using chess as a metaphor, he wrote, "I look forward to Obama being able to continue wearing the moderate mantle while singling out obstructionist voices who have diminishing credibility. This will create more and more checkmates over the next 8 years."

Chris Cillizza summed up the tactical components of the controversy on the washingtonpost.com blog The Fix: "Limbaugh isn’t going anywhere any time soon. And his voice — and influence — may well get stronger with the GOP out of power. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for Republicans? Time will tell."

Obama’s actions were of major interest last week, but they were edged out by a story of a prank that spread rapidly through the online community.

The second largest story last week, with 14% of the embedded links, was a Jan. 29 report on Foxnews.com about hackers in Texas who 10 days earlier broke into the control system of digital road signs and changed one sign in Austin to read, "Zombies Ahead." The tale became so popular, that according to Icerocket, 254 different Web sites had linked to the article by Jan. 30 – more than any other individual story last week.

The joke was not lost on local officials, even though some were troubled by the security breach. "It’s sort of amusing, but not at all helpful," Chris Lippincott, of the Texas Department of Transportation, told FOXNews.com.

"I honestly don’t know how I would react if I saw that sign on the road," mused Stephanie on Belle-Vita.com. "A part of me hopes I wouldn’t believe something like that, but how often do you see a sign warning of zombies!? I would probably be like, ‘OMG!!’ for a second before realizing it’s a joke."

"Now here’s a good reason for being late to work…" remarked ubiquitous-a.

And even though the sign may have proved confusing to drivers, most bloggers took the practical joke in good fun. "If they catch the guy who did this," wrote Richard D. at By His Grace – For His Glory, "he should be given a public service humor award. I bet he brought a smile to the face of many motorists."

Top YouTube Videos


Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube – January 24 – 30, 2009

1. President Obama’s January 24 weekly video address

2. A Queens Guard in London pushes a tourist mimicking his actions

3. Swiss skier Daniel Albrecht crashes during a training run

4. Obama’s first interview as President with the Arab television station Al-Arabiya

5. Associated Press video about a promoter who was killed by an accident at a Wisconsin monster truck rally

The PEJ New Media Index also tracks the most popular news videos on YouTube each week. Last week, Barack Obama was the central figure of two of the five most popular news stories.

 

 

The top video on YouTube for the week was Obama’s weekly video address. Upon taking office, Obama transformed the old-style presidential Saturday radio addresses begun by FDR in 1933 into addresses aimed as much at younger audiences using newer media. For this week, the effort seemed to have paid off. In this particular address, Obama discussed the details of the economic stimulus bill that he calls the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan.

Note: Technorati’s list of top-linked to stories, due to technical errors, was not updated for Thursday, January 29 or Friday, January 30. Therefore, this week’s data is based on Technorati’s lists Monday – Wednesday and Icerocket’s lists all five days.


The New Media Index is a weekly report that captures the leading commentary of blogs and social media sites focused on news and compares those subjects to that of the mainstream press.

PEJ is launching the New Media Index as a companion to its weekly News Coverage Index. Blogs and other new media are an important part of creating today’s news information narrative and in shaping the way Americans interact with the news. The expansion of online blogs and other social media sites has allowed news-consumers and others outside the mainstream press to have more of a role in agenda setting, dissemination and interpretation. PEJ wanted to find out what subjects in the national news the online sites focus on, and how that compared with the narrative in the traditional press.

Two prominent Web tracking sites, Technorati and Icerocket, monitor more than 100 million blogs and over 250 million pieces of social media, using the links to articles embedded on these sites as a proxy for determining what these subjects are. Using this tracking process as a base, PEJ staff compiles the lists of links each day, Monday through Friday. Staff captures the top five linked-to stories on each list (50 stories in all each week), reads, watches or listens to these posts and conducts a content analysis of their subject matter, just as it does for the mainstream press in its weekly News Coverage Index. It follows the same coding methodology as that of the NCI. This process allows us to compare the New Media commentary, based on the Technorati and Icerocket list of links, with the commentary in the traditional press.

The priorities of the bloggers are measured in terms of percentage of links. Each time a news blog or social media Web page adds a link to its site directing its readers to a news story, it suggests that the author of the blog places at least some importance on the content of that article. The user may or may not agree with the contents of the article, but they feel it is important enough to draw the reader’s attention to it. PEJ measures the topics that are of most interest to bloggers by compiling the quantitative information on links and analyzing the results.

While the News Coverage Index is comprised of primarily U.S.-based media outlets, the aggregators of blogs and other social media include both U.S. and non-U.S. blogs. In addition, stories that are linked to can be from non-U.S. sources. However, according to PEJ’s research over the last two months, the only non-U.S. news stories included in the top lists for Technorati and Icerocket have been the BBC (whose Web site is part of the News Coverage Index) and the Guardian.

The Project also tracks the most popular news video on YouTube each week.

*For the sake of authenticity, PEJ has a policy of not correcting misspellings that appear in direct quotes from blog postings.


FOOTNOTE
[1] According to Arbitron ratings from Spring 2008, Rush Limbaugh gets about 14.25 million listeners per week.