October 5, 2009

Covering the Great Recession

“Meme Tracker” Analysis: What Ideas Reverberated in the Media?

In addition to examining the topics, sources, datelines and actions that drove the coverage, the study took another step, probing which statements or conceptual catch phrases about the economic crisis got the most attention in the media.

To do this, PEJ collaborated with researchers at Cornell, Stanford and Facebook who have developed a new technology-based media analysis system called “Meme-tracker.” The system analyzes a much wider swath of online media—1.6 million media sites and blogs—and can identify and track the most frequently quoted phrases and concepts resonating throughout the media. Through a process of identifying the phrases and then searching for the words around them and similar ideas that might have come from other people, the researchers identify what they call “memes,” a word, derived from the Greek word mimema, that in the internet age has been adopted to mean cultural idea. (See text box explaining the process.) Here, we studied the critical period from February 1, not long after Obama took office, through July 3, when the economy had substantially receded as a story.

The findings reinforce the top-down institutional nature of the coverage that we encountered in our other analyses. What’s more, this meme-tracker analysis found precisely the moments and phrases from President Barack Obama that reverberated most strongly. The president himself accounted for six of the top 10 statements or phrases that were picked up most often in the press between February 1 and July 3, 2009, including the top three. Of the top 20 memes, the president was responsible for nine.

And several of these came early on, particularly in his speech to congress on February 24, when Obama tried to express both the gravity of the crisis and the confidence in economic recovery. The message that reverberated most widely during those five months, through more than 4,000 separate citations, was the notion that “we will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was the source for two of the top 20 memes or phrases, both from a long interview he did for 60 Minutes, on March 15, which played a pivotal role in suggesting that the economy might be improving.

Republican critics of the president accounted for four of the top 20 memes, none of which was among the top 10. And the leading phrases came not from a major Washington Republican figure, but from the governor of Louisiana.

All in all, looking across a breadth of media online, from CNN to China Daily to Raw Story, 16 of the top 20 most frequently cited phrases came from U.S. government officials. The four phrases that came from outside government all marked moments when the crisis seemed most severe.  

And clearly the early weeks set the dialogue for the economic debate. In fact, not one of the top 20 memes emerged after March 30, when President Obama, in announcing the government assistance program for the auto industry, declared that “now is the time to confront our problems.”

In other words, just as coverage overall declined sharply after March so did the traction of new ideas. The narrative appeared to have been largely set: that the economy was now no longer in free fall and appeared to be bottoming out or even improving.

February 24: A Day filled with Memorable Words

One particular public appearance seemed to have the strongest resonance in the media narrative in these five critical months: Obama’s speech to Congress on February 24, delivered just over a month into his presidency, even before his State of the Union Address. It came at the height of the debate over what actions the government should take, with the speech designed to explain and promote his plan.

Three different lines used by Obama in that speech emerged as key concepts reported on by the media and repeated by others. That night’s speech also spurred two of the three most-repeated Republican phrases or ideas, both of which appeared in the official Republican response delivered by Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA).  

The first Obama line, the most cited phrase of all from February 1 through July 3, came in his opening: “We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.” The tracking algorithm identified more than 4,000 different recitations of that concept, appearing in such outlets as siouxcityjournal.com, Newsmax.com and blogspot.com.

Obama’s very next line in the speech became the fifth most frequently cited concept: “The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation.” As an example of how a “meme” or concept emerges, the tracking here also includes two phrases a few moments later in the speech that convey the same idea, “the answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach” and also “what is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face and take responsibility for our future once more.” 

And, ranking 16th overall was a similar directive later in the speech, one just different enough in sensibility, since it focused on timing rather than strength, that it was identified as a slightly different idea: “The time to take charge of our future is here.”  

Republican Voices

The Republicans then had their chance to officially respond. That speech delivered by Gov. Jindal included two of the four Republican phrases that made it in the top 20. Both suggested financial irresponsibility in the President’s plan. Ranking 14th overall was the suggestion that the plan took money out of the hands of our youngest generation: “Who among us would ask our children for a loan so we could spend money we do not have on things we do not need.” Earlier, ranking 18th, there was the criticism of raising taxes to empower Washington: “The way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in the hands of Washington politicians.”

The only other Republican-led concepts to emerge in the top 20 were House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-OH) claim that, “the era of big government is back,” following the February 24 speech and an explosive remark later in March from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Responding to the controversy surrounding bonuses given to AIG executives, which Republicans and Democrats largely chastised in unison, the senator captured  media attention by suggesting that AIG executives “follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say I’m sorry and then either do one of two things, resign or go commit suicide.” It ranked 11th overall, with about 2,200 separate citations, nearly all of which were a portion of the original, direct quote.

Other Government Messages that Gained Traction

In addition to those from the February 24 speech, Obama articulated five other phrases that were among the Top 20 economic memes.

On February 7, the Labor Department released figures showing that January recorded the greatest one-month job loss in 42 years. In his response to these figures, Obama used a phrase that will be perhaps the most remembered over time: “In the midst of our greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

This wasn’t the first time the comparison with the Great Depression was expressed. Back in the fall of 2008, analysts and others began using it with the qualifier “may be” to suggest how dire the situation could become. Here, the president used it as a charge to Congress to take action. And as the severity of the crisis crystallized, the concept became media shorthand for describing its gravity. It is the one phrase in our analysis that continued to appear throughout the time period studied and to have most separate iterations. Even the president himself used the idea differently over time — evolving from identifying the need for action to suggesting the success of his plan by early summer.

Another top cited Obama phrase came in his response to the AIG bonuses, offered the same day as Sen. Grassley’s suicide suggestion:  “How do they justify this outrage to the taxpayers who are keeping the company afloat?” While it didn’t carry the same punch as Grassley’s, it may have resonated with more people overall as it was the second most frequently appearing phrase in our analysis (roughly 4,400 citations). 

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke made numerous public statements throughout this period, but it was his interview with 60 Minutes on March 15 that caught the media’s and the public’s attention. In one quote, Bernanke confessed that he “slammed the phone more than a few times discussing AIG.” Also during that interview, he offered a sign of hope, saying “we’ve seen some progress in the financial markets, absolutely.” It was a line many cling to and that within days, had attracted about 2,400 citations or iterations.  

Voices Outside U.S. Government

Of all the top 20 phrases, just four came from outside the U.S. government.

In a sign of China’s increasing economic power, a statement from the Chinese premier was the sixth most resonant economic statement during these five months. On March 13, around the low ebb of the stock market, Premier Wen Jiabao suggested he lacked confidence in his American investments: “Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest I’m a little bit worried.” For many, Wen Jiabao’s warning revealed the severity of the situation.  The phrase, in our list of news websites from around the world, ranked ahead of anything said by a Republican, a business figure or the president’s staff.

And investment guru Warren Buffett was one of the few non-government figures to penetrate the economic media narrative in a significant way. In his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway Inc. shareholders, he wrote: “The economy will be in shambles throughout 2009 and for that matter probably well beyond but that conclusion does not tell us whether the stock market will rise or fall.” For many, the words from Buffett marked the reality of tough times to come.

There was another grim milestone just three days later when General Motors announced in its annual report to U.S. security regulators that it might be forced to seek bankruptcy protection. Specifically, it was the expression of doubt about the company’s ability “to continue as a going concern” that was picked up most widely, with more than 2,500 iterations.

Finally, the fourth biggest meme overall in these five months wasn’t a spoken idea at all. Instead, it was a controversial editorial cartoon in the February 18 New York Post, which depicted police officers standing over a bullet-riddled chimpanzee with the caption, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” The cartoon was denounced as racist and also dangerously provocative, and the Post apologized and removed the cartoon from its website. Nonetheless, there were still more than 3,300 citations between February 18 and May 1, demonstrating how difficult it can be to stuff the toothpaste back into the tube when it comes to the viral spread of online material.