May 28, 2009

California’s Budget Propositions Lead a Diverse Online Conversation

PEJ New Media Index May 17-22, 2009

The widely diverse interests of social media shone through last week, as a mix of topics-the fiscal mess in California, the murder of a rapper, an ancient creature, and a virtual strip search-all shared in the conversation.

From May 18-22, the No. 1 story in social media was the California financial crisis and the voters’ rejection of ballot initiatives designed to deal with the problem. That subject generated 17% of the week’s links, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Conservative bloggers in particular honed in on the subject, claiming the votes were a rejection of higher taxes and bigger government-and a message to politicians throughout the country.

PEJ’s New Media Index typically utilizes data collected from two different Web tracking sites, Icerocket and Technorati. However, Technorati has been having technical problems so this week’s NMI is based solely on daily figures from Icerocket.

The second largest story on Icerocket, receiving 12% of the links, was the May 18 shooting death of rapper Dolla. Fans used the Web as a way to honor his memory and some pointed out the odd coincidence that Dolla had started his own Twitter feed hours before his untimely death.

Close behind (at 11%), was the unveiling of a 47-million-year-old fossil nicknamed "Ida" that scientists claimed was an ancestor of modern primates. Bloggers discussed whether the fossil was the so-called "missing link" that proved the theory of evolution or even if the concept of a missing link was realistic considering the complexity of the theory of human evolution.

The fourth largest story (at 9%) was a CNN.com report about screening machines at some airport security stations that take "whole body images" of passengers. Some privacy advocates, led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, believe the machines reveal "naked" pictures of passengers and are planning a campaign against their use.

Another CNN.com report commanded 9% of the links as well. This one was about Web companies, such as Legacy Locker, that allow online users to bequeath their online accounts, passwords, and Web sites after they die.

The focus of the traditional press last week was substantially different from that of the blogosphere, according to Icerocket’s Web tracking site. For the mainstream media, the top story was the debate over anti-terrorism strategies such as the closing of Guantanamo Bay and harsh interrogation techniques. The No. 2 story was the economic crisis, which included the problems facing California. This was followed by President Obama’s plan to regulate auto mileage standards, the meeting between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the disruption of an alleged terrorist plot hatched in New York against Jewish targets.

California Budget Propositions

On May 19, California voters went to the polls and defeated five budget measures supported by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and other lawmakers. The measures, aimed at restoring fiscal discipline, would have either extended tax hikes or capped state spending.

Most of the attention in the blogosphere came from conservatives who felt the results reflected a strong anti-tax-and-spend sentiment.

"Us Californians went to the polls last night and told the state enough with taxes to keep your greedy grubby hands filled with cash," described Curt at Flopping Aces. "The tax revolt in this state has begun, and I honestly never thought I would see the day."*

"The California Assembly wouldn’t restrain spending," warned Alaphia at Creating Orwellian World-View by Machiavellianism. "Therefore California’s out of control spending is but a forewarning of where national Democrats that control Congress are taking the rest of the nation. As California goes so goes the nation."

While few bloggers voiced support for the failed propositions, some commented on California’s unusual practice of using referenda to resolve budget issues.  

"What it really all boils down to, is that we want tons of stuff that we just can’t (or won’t) pay for, and when it comes to fixing problems that were a direct result of our own handiwork, we blame the politicians," surmised demkid at The Bright Coast. "Do we really trust the knowledge of our fellow citizens more so than the representatives we elected to serve?" 

"California: An example of direct democracy gone haywire," he concluded.

Death of a Rapper

The Web filled with tributes after the shooting death of rapper Dolla at a Los Angeles shopping mall on May 18. Dolla, whose real name is Roderick Anthony Burton II, was an up-and-coming 21 year-old star when he died.

"Damn shame!!! All I have to say is be careful out there!! R.I.P. This one is for you…" wrote Nykotyne before posting a YouTube video of one of Dolla’s songs.

Some drew attention to the way social media helped fans connect and offer condolences.

"It’s just a coincedence that he had only joined Twitter hours earlier under the username dollagang," observed Kevin at Time to Tweet. "Thousands of fans are now tagging his account and sending on their regards."

"It would seem that this may be the first time a relatively famous person that actually uses Twitter (if only for a day) has passed away," noted ThunDi Technology Blog. "And like a MySpace or Facebook wall, this is now another way for fans to pay respect."

Ida the Fossil

Evolution became a hot topic of conversation after scientists at the American Museum of Natural History in New York revealed the remains of a 47-million-year-old, lemur-like creature they nicknamed Ida. The fossil was in great condition and some experts claimed that this discovery could be the "missing link" in the chain of evolution between primates and distant relatives.

The claims were largely not well received, with criticism in this case coming from multiple levels.

Bloggers such as Defend the Word were not convinced of the milestone.

"Is ‘Ida’ a ‘missing link’ we have all been waiting for?" the blogger wrote. "Despite the hype, Ida looks nothing like a transitional ‘apeman,’ instead looking quite like a modern lemur…Thus, rather than an apeman-like missing link that some media sources have irresponsibly implied, the real story is quite underwhelming and should in no way faze creationists."

At the same time, some defenders of evolution took issue with the concept of a "missing link."

"The term ‘missing link’ is not used in science," proclaimed Cliff Martin at Outside the Box. "It is a meaningless cliché typically forwarded by anti-evolutionists who quite clearly have no clue…if evolution is true, there is no such ‘missing link’. Instead, we should expect to find thousands upon thousands of transitional forms interconnecting all living species."

Top YouTube Videos

The PEJ New Media Index also tracks the most popular news videos on YouTube each week.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

May 16 – 22, 2009

1. Jesse Ventura appears on Sean Hannity’s television program on May 18

2. Video of French President Nicolas Sarkozy making a surprise visit during an interview with his wife and the readers of the magazine Femme Actuelle

3. An Associated Press story about the tearing down of the home of a child star from the movie Slumdog Millionaire

4. A local Florida TV report about a high school yearbook picture that some say shows a student’s private parts

5. Ventura clashes with Elizabeth Hasselbeck on the May 18 edition of The View

Former Minnesota Governor and professional wrestler Jesse Ventura was a YouTube star last week. Two of the five most viewed videos featured television appearances made by Ventura.

The most popular was a May 18 interview on the Fox News Channel where Ventura and host Sean Hannity clashed over a number of political issues including the legacy of President Bush and the federal deficit.

Then at the fifth spot was a May 18 appearance of Ventura on the talk-show The View where he clashed with host Elizabeth Hasselbeck over waterboarding and torture. "You give me a waterboard, one hour, and Dick Cheney and I’ll have him confessing to the Sharon Tate murders," insisted Ventura.



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 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 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 weekday each day.   They capture the top five linked-to stories on each list (50 stories in all each week), and 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 four 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 or grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes from blog postings.

Note: PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index includes Sunday newspapers while the New Media Index is Monday through Friday.