December 30, 2009

Bloggers Track the Nuances of the Health Care Debate

PEJ New Media Index December 21-25, 2009

Both bloggers and users of Twitter closely followed the ebb and flow of the Senate’s debate over health care reform last week, commenting on each step of the way.

From December 21-25, fully 44% of the news links in blogs were about health care, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. This attention far surpassed the previous high of 23% the week of August 10-14. And while a hot topic all year for social media, this was just the third time that it ranked as the number one subject.

Most of the focus last week was on negotiations in the Senate over the reform bill which passed after much debate on Christmas Eve. Many supporters admitted the Senate’s version was not perfect, but applauded the passage nevertheless. Opponents focused on deals made with Democratic lawmakers in order to secure their votes in favor. Both sides paid a great deal of attention to the nuances and nature of the debate with their own tone at times heated and spiteful.

Beyond health care, the second-biggest topic on blogs was an international call for action. A Facebook and Twitter campaign in Britain to upset the favored top Christmas single received 13% of the links. A 17-year-old song by the politically active rock band, Rage Against the Machine, received enough downloads through this campaign to defeat the song by the winner of Britain’s popular talent search TV show, The X Factor. Many bloggers celebrated the upset victory as a sign that online grassroots movements could top corporate interests.

A Washington Post interview with President Obama about his first year in office finished third at 11%. Fourth (at 8%) was the unexpected death of 32-year-old actress Brittany Murphy, apparently of natural causes. And a Los Angeles Times report that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was going to ask for federal assistance to help with the state’s budget crisis finished fifth at 5%.

On Twitter, the only story to receive more interest than the health care debate last week was the outage of Blackberry devices that began on December 22. Fully 27% of the Tweets linking to news stories focused on the eight-hour incident which affected almost all Blackberry users in North America.

Health care was the second largest topic, with 17% of the links. Most of the Tweets passed on the information that the Senate had voted to approve a version of the reform bill on Christmas Eve.

The news that David Goldman and his 9-year-old son, Sean, had been reunited following an international custody battle between Brazil and the U.S. finished third with 12% of the links. Fourth (at 11%) was a CNN report about the record snow storm that blanketed the East Coast during the busy travel weekend prior to Christmas. And fifth (at 10%) was a report that a Pakistani court had sentenced two men to have their noses and ears chopped off after being convicted for doing the same thing to a young woman.

Health Care Bill

After months of negotiations and debate, last week began with the news that Senate Democrats had secured the necessary 60 votes to break a filibuster and move forward on the health care reform bill. Ben Nelson, a moderate Democrat from Nebraska, announced his support after securing some changes such as tighter restrictions on insurance coverage for abortions.

Opponents of the bill decried the news.

“When push comes to shove Democrats go for the money rather than their principles,” announced Big Dog’s Weblog. “Nelson became the latest Democrat whore who sold out and disregarded what his constituents want in order to side with Democrats in the Senate.”

“The Obamacare bill in the Senate had the most egregious amount of bribery in it that I have seen in any bill to date,” agreed Brenda Bowers.

Supporters of reform debated whether the Senate’s version was too watered-down to be effective, or whether it was better to pass an imperfect bill than nothing at all. Some linked to a December 20th Washington Post op-ed by Victoria Reggie Kennedy who argued that her late husband, Senator Ted Kennedy, despite the compromises would have supported the bill.

“Ted often said that we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” she wrote.

“I agree,” seconded Middle of the Road at ColoradoPols.com. “Pass the bill. This chance isn’t going to come around for another 15 to 20 years. It’s been nearly 17 since President Clinton made an attempt.”

“He [Ted Kennedy] would pass it because he learned from his own mistake years ago when he did not support health care legislation because it was not perfect,” wrote Kitty Reporter. “In 20-20 hindsight he realized that incremental changes over time will lead to overall positive change.”

By mid-week, a final Senate vote had been scheduled for Thursday, Christmas Eve, and bloggers focused in on the process it had taken to get there.

Liberals linked to a December 21 Washington Post story by Dana Milbank who described the “ugly” tenor of the Senate’s floor debate. In particular, bloggers zeroed in on a comment by Republican Senator Tom Coburn who asked Americans to pray that some Senator would be unable to attend the vote. Many, including Milbank, interpreted Coburn’s remark as being directed at 92-year-old, wheelchair-bound Senator Robert Byrd who had been facing health problems in recent months.

“Just another example of the insanity of the righties,” responded a commenter named Truth 101 at Mad Mike’s America. “Coburns homies in Oklahoma think he’s a great republican for hoping a Democrat would die. Of course, that is one of the tenants of good republicanism these days.”*

Conservatives highlighted the news that Democratic Senator Chris Dodd, who will be facing a tough re-election campaign, inserted a $100 million request in the bill for a hospital in his home state of Connecticut.

“Okay, the healthcare bill process seems to be a little less about poor uninsured Americans than it is about good ol’ fashioned ‘The Price is Right’ politicking,” replied Bruce at Drive Thru.

“This whore [Chris Dodd] was going to vote for ObamaKare anyway, but it’s nice to see his fellow thieves passing out goodies to their pal during a tough election campaign,” declared For What It’s Worth. “As someone else pointed out, at least when you bribe a cop you have to dig into your own pocket to do so. Our Congress bribes itself by digging into our pockets.”

On Thursday, the Senate officially passed the $871 billion health care reform bill and bloggers on both sides reacted strongly.

“Fantastic news coming out of Washington,” declared Emma at Views Across the Pond. “The long over due health care bill has passed in the Senate by a 60 – 39 majority…Although the bill still has many hurdles to cross…this news breaking, just hours before Christmas Day, is a good sign for the American public who have waited many years for reform.”

“happy health care reform day,” applauded Jae Gregory’s Blog. “i mean hey, congrats Obama. i’m thrilled you’ve made history and gave a ballin’ speech about it.”

“Who cares what the corrupt pigs did,” wrote Karolyn Gray at Gray3’s Thirdsphere. “It seems the pigs on the hill think giving the ‘gift’ of taxation, unemployment, higher costs, subjugation and imprisonment for refusing their ‘mandate’ is what America wants.”

“It will cost at least ten times what they’re projecting,” warned Jay G at Marooned. “…in the end it won’t do a damned thing to actually reform health care – but will expand the government’s intrusive role in our lives quite a bit…And good luck sleeping tonight.”

Social Media and the British Pop Charts

Many bloggers saw the announcement of Britain’s number one Christmas song for 2009 as a victory for social media over the corporate music industry.

Rather than a song from heavy favorite Joe McElderry, the winner of Britain’s talent show The X Factor, the number one song was a 1992 hit by the rock band Rage Against the Machine.

Led by an unknown music fan named Jon Morter, an Internet campaign on Facebook and Twitter encouraged enough people to download the 17-year-old Rage Against the Machine song that it finished at the top of the pop charts for the week.

The upset put an end to four straight victories by X Factor winners, a show produced by international music tycoon Simon Cowell.

“This is an unexpected upset to the longstanding tradition of bland, cheesy pop ballads monopolising the giddy heights of the Yuletide singles chart,” proclaimed Captain Jako at Frank Owen’s Paintbrush. “It once again points to the democratic potential of the internet. A grassroots effort coordinated over social networking sites and with zilch budget has proved more effective than the largely traditional marketing techniques used by wealthy industry bigwigs like Simon Cowell to get even more money out of UK consumers.”

“The campaign behind RATM is interesting in its own right. If only because, once again, it demonstrates the power – if it can be called that – of the emergent internet radicalism,” added Phil BC at A Very Public Sociologist. “With very little time and cost, people are able to register their protest/opposition without the rigmarole of standing in the rain, listening to boring speeches, and beating off the desperate efforts of Trot paper sellers.”

Not everyone agreed, however.

“I think it’s pretty ridiculous to set up this sort of petty campaign just to oppose Simon Cowell and his variant of pop music – it is, quite obviously, what people like. Why else would they a) vote for them in the show and b) purchase the music?” asked Chris at the Blue Idea.

YouTube

Two of the most viewed news videos on YouTube last week involved another international incident that received relatively little attention in the U.S. On December 13, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was attending a rally when a man in the crowd threw a statuette of a cathedral at him, bloodying his face and sending him to the hospital.

Broadcast in Italian, the first and third most viewed videos of the week asked questions about the attack and closely examine the photos and news reports of the incident. The author of the third video claims there were discrepancies in the videos and that key photographic evidence had been removed from Google since the event occurred.

Combined, these two videos had been viewed more than a million times.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

For the Week of December 21-25, 2009

1. Photographs and a news report about the December 13 attack on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

2. Senator Al Franken denies Senator Joe Lieberman additional time to speak on the Senate floor during a discussion of health care

3. Another video that examines the details of the attack on Berlusconi

4. A Spanish news report about the death of Arturo Beltran Leyva, the leader of one of Mexico’s best known drug trafficking organizations

5. A news report from Chattanooga, Tennessee, about a 4-year-old who is accused of getting drunk and stealing Christmas presents from his neighbors



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.

A prominent Web tracking site Icerocket which, monitors millions of blogs, 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 Icerocket list of links, with the commentary in the traditional press. Note: When the NMI was launched in January 2009, another web-tracking site Technorati was similarly monitoring blogs and social media. PEJ originally captured both Technorati’s and Icerocket’s daily aggregation. In recent months, though, this component of Technorati’s site has been down with no indication of when it might resume. 

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.