August 6, 2009

Blogs Chew Over Food and Health while Iran Surges on Twitter

PEJ New Media Index July 27-31, 2009

In a week when the mainstream media were focused on the health care reform battle raging in Washington, the blogosphere highlighted two stories that presented a different kind of health debate. Could blue M&M’s have some therapeutic properties? And does organic produce offer major nutritional benefits?

On Twitter, the internal turmoil in Iran not only continued to dominate, it reached its highest point in weeks.  

From July 27-31, 39% of the links from blogs and some other social media were aimed at two stories about food, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The top story, accounting for 25% of the links, was about an ingredient not often associated with healing. According to a July 28 report on CNN.com, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center discovered that a blue dye in the candy M&M’s could help reduce damage caused by spine injuries. Researchers discovered the medical potential of the compound Brilliant Blue G (BBG) after doing tests on rats, noting that the only side effect appeared to be that treated animals temporarily turned blue.[1] Another 14% of the links connected to a BBC story that British researchers have concluded that organic produce has little more nutritional value than food that is grown conventionally.

The rest of the top stories in blogs last week related to political matters that garnered significant attention in the mainstream press as well.

Stories related to the fallout from the arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. accounted for 14% of all the links. Fourth (at 9%) were stories about the legislative battle over health care reform, most of which revolved around  a July 26 report in the New York Post claiming the bill being debated in the House of Representatives contains the outdated term "retarded" to refer to people with mental disabilities. And fifth (at 7%) was a USAToday.com story on persistent rumors about Barack Obama’s birth certificate spread by the so-called "birthers." This story quoted the director of the Hawaii State Department of Health, Dr. Chiyome Fukino, as saying he has personally seen the original records proving Obama was born in Hawaii and not overseas, as some who question Obama’s citizenship have claimed.

In the traditional press last week, the debate over health care reform was the No. 1 subject, accounting for 19% of the week’s newshole, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. Next was the ongoing economic situation (14%) followed by the arrest of Professor Gates (8%), new developments surrounding the death of Michael Jackson (4%) and coverage of the Obama administration fueled mostly by the controversy over Obama’s birth certificate (3%).

On Twitter last week, there was a dramatic surge of attention to the political unrest in Iran. The week included a confrontation between protestors and police at the gravesite of "Neda," the young woman killed during demonstrations who became a worldwide symbol of opposition to the regime. Last week, fully 96% of the news-focused links on Twitter went to stories about Iran. While this marks the seventh straight week that Iran has led all news-related links in Twitter traffic, that number is a major increase over the level of attention in the previous two weeks (when Iran made up 42% and 49%).

There was no such spike in interest in the situation in Iran in the mainstream press, however, where last week the subject accounted for only 2% of the week’s overall newshole in the traditional media, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index.

Blogs and Food

When many bloggers came across the CNN report that dye used in blue M&M’s and Gatorade could help reduce damage caused by spinal cord injuries, the reaction was mostly surprise. Researchers injected the compound into rats that had spinal cord injuries, and the rats were able to walk again, albeit with a limp. The only reported side effect was that the subjects turned blue. That was something many bloggers seemed okay with.

"So you are telling me someone could walk again and be able to become blue? Man that is a cool trade off if you ask me!" posted Clemento at Absolute Random. "I hope this discovery really works and helps people in the future though, so lets keep our fingers crossed. In the meantime you better keep popping those blue M&M’s!"*

"When you went shopping last night, I hope you went ahead and picked up one of those large sacks of M&Ms. Because there’s about to be a run on them," predicted Justin Plus One. "In case you all didn’t hear, scientists have discovered that blue M&Ms can reduce spinal injuries …Totally random, but hey, I love excuses to eat more candy."

Others were preoccupied with the picture of the blue-tinted rat that accompanied the story.

"Isn’t he the CUTEST thing you’ve ever seen?" asked sonia6349. "At least he’s blue for a good cause!"

"Forget the medical benefits, I want this blue mouse!" added ryptide.

The news was not so good for the organic food movement in social media. Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine looked at 55 studies on health and organic food from the past 50 years and concluded there was little nutritional difference between organically and conventionally grown food. That caught the attention of bloggers, too, but the reaction to this online was divided.

Some were skeptical of the conclusion.

"I think it’s still safe to affirm that organic foods are indeed healthier if not for the nutritional benefits," argued irene design. "Think of all the things you do not ingest when you eat organically grown foods. Pesticides, chemically-derived fertilizers, anti-biotics and hormones in meat…the list goes on. To me the common sense still says that organics are better (i.e. healthier) whether or not they are more ‘nutritious’."

Others were pleased with the findings. "Maybe now we can get on with the business of feeding people and using tech to do so as opposed to bringing the world back to the 19th century," critiqued Cyberhillbilly.

And some felt that the focus on health benefits missed the point altogether.

"People tend to forget that the reason for going organic was initially not human health, it was ecosystem health, and so it should remain," explained Rami Zurayk at Land and People.

Iran Dominates Twitter Once Again

Not only did the amount of attention paid to Iran by Twitter increase dramatically last week. There was also much more diversity in the links that were highlighted.

For the past few weeks, the significant majority of Iran-related links went to a Web site that included "Green Briefs," summaries of events aggregated by Iranian translator Josh Shahryar from Twitter feeds he deems reliable. Several of these Green Briefs were  among the most popular tweet links last week as well (such as this one from July 25 which described protests in support of Iranian rights in more than 100 cities around the world), but a number of other types of stories were also popular. This has not been true in the previous few weeks, suggesting an increase in the variety of sources people were using to get information about Iran.

A YouTube video of a clash between protestors and police on July 30 in Vanak Square was the single most linked-to news page from tweets last week as it received at least 179 links on the morning of July 31. The message that often accompanied the link to the violent video was, "Fighting people & Police in Vanak SQ–8 Mordad."

Also popular was a July 27 Time magazine article by Robin Wright declaring that a second phase of protests in Iran had begun, one that is a "feistier, more imaginative and potentially enduring campaign." The center of this new campaign, according to Wright, are a number of actions such as a boycott of goods that advertise on state-controlled television and "quickie" street demonstrations that are too short to be broken up by security forces.

And another YouTube video of a very different nature was also spotlighted on Twitter.  On July 26, CNN host Fareed Zakaria interviewed Professor Mohammed Marandi, an ally of the Iranian government. During the interview Zakaria was critical of the actions taken by the Iranian government, calling it a "military dictatorship." A number of Twitter users linked to the clip with the message, "Fareed Zakaria Attacks Falicious Arguments of Islamic Regime."

Top YouTube Videos

Sometimes those who deliver the news also make the news.

The most viewed news-related video on YouTube last week was an odd event that occurred during the discussion of a serious topic-a male guest on a TV news show appearing to hit on the female interviewer.

During a July 25 Fox News segment on the economy, author and analyst Uri Man was interviewed by host Ainsley Earhardt about Wall Street earnings and consumer confidence. To many observers, however, Man seemed more interested in focusing on the blonde anchorwoman than anything else.

"You look great," Man told the host referring to her brightly colored outfit. Later, Man noted that Earhardt had gone to the University of South Carolina which he discovered by reading about her. And after being told his pink tie matched Earhardt’s outfit, Man announced, "We look good together."

Following the interview, Earhardt laughed and asked her co-host, "Is he hitting on me on live TV? Did that just happen?"  

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

July 25 – 31, 2009

1. A July 25 video of analyst Uri Man appearing to be overly friendly toward Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt

2. A video response to claims by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly that Amsterdam is a crime-infested city that cites data showing the Dutch capital is safer than the United States

3. An episode of =3, a humorous YouTube series by Ray William Johnson, that includes footage of an incoherent woman at a city council meeting in California

4. Footage from a first-person perspective of Formula One driver Felipe Massa crashing into a wall

5. A video of Mike Stark from the Huffington Post asking various Congressmen if they believe Barack Obama was born in the United States

 



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.

For the examination of the links from Twitter, PEJ staff monitored the tracking site Tweetmeme. Similar to Icerocket and Technorati, Tweetmeme measures the number of times a link to a particular story or blog post is tweeted and retweeted. Then, as we do with Technorati and Icerocket, PEJ captured the five most popular linked-to pages each weekday under the heading of "news" as determined by Tweetmeme’s method of categorization. And as with the other data provided in the NMI, the top stories are determined in terms of percentage of links. (One minor difference is that Tweetmeme offers the top links over the prior 24 hours while the lists used on Technorati and Icerocket offer the top links over the previous 48 hours.)

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.


[1]PEJ’s New Media Index of blogs typically utilizes data collected from two different Web tracking sites, Icerocket and Technorati. This past week, Technorati had technical problems so the blog figures for this week’s NMI are based solely on daily figures from Icerocket.