March 3, 2011

Bloggers Take Sides in the Wisconsin Standoff

PEJ New Media Index February 21-25, 2011

For the second straight week, social and mainstream media shared similar news agendas as the labor stalemate in Wisconsin and the violent unrest in Libya garnered the most attention. But while the traditional press focused more on the events in the Middle East, bloggers spent more time debating the standoff in Wisconsin between unions and the governor over his effort to curtail collective bargaining rights.

From February 21-25, one quarter (25%) of the news links on blogs were about the political turmoil in Wisconsin, making it the No. 1 subject, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. In the mainstream press, the economy, dominated by the Wisconsin situation, was the second-biggest subject-filling 24% of the newshole.

On blogs, a passionate debate raged that was clearly split along ideological lines. Conservatives applauded Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for standing up to unions, which they viewed as special interest groups with too much political clout. Liberals derided Walker for the same actions, while defending unions as an important force in strengthening the middle class. Both sides had significant representation in the online discussion.

For some, President Obama became the issue after he injected himself into the debate by claiming that Walker was conducting an "assault" on unions. Most bloggers condemned the President for his stance on the issue, although he did have a few supporters.

The second-largest story on blogs, with 12%, was the unrest in Libya-a subject which was also popular on Twitter as the No. 2 story there, with 13% of the links. The week before, the turmoil in neighboring Egypt was the No. 2 story on blogs, with 21% of the links.

On both social media platforms last week, most of the activity involved passing along breaking news from Libya. However, there were some expressions of support for the protestors while a few bloggers pondered the uncertain road ahead. (In the mainstream media, events in the Middle East were the No. 1 story last week, at 35% of the newshole.)

The No. 3 story on blogs, also at 12%, was a BBC report about American scientists who claim that monkeys have the ability to express self-doubt and uncertainty. The scientists concluded that the way the monkeys played a certain computer game revealed a self-awareness in their thinking, which was previously thought to only be a human trait.

The fourth subject (8%) included reports that the Obama Administration would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act-a law which bars the government from acknowledging same-sex marriages. The announcement marks a shift in the administration’s stance on gay rights. Most of the opinion online supported Obama’s decision, although some bloggers expressed concern that the President was overstepping his role by deciding which laws should and should not be enforced.

A Los Angeles Times op-ed column about the myth of "greedy geezers" who are supposedly bankrupting the nation was the fifth-largest subject, with 7% of the week’s links. According to the author, Susan Jacobs, many Americans buy into the perception, which she says is false, that most senior citizens are wealthy enough not to need Social Security and Medicare, and are "fleecing" younger American workers.


On the social networking platform Twitter, aside from the attention to the upheaval in Libya, technology news once again led the way-albeit with a philanthropic twist.

The top subject last week on Twitter, with 18% of the links, was Apple. Several stories about the company’s products were highlighted, including a Mashable story featuring outstanding paintings created on the iPad and iPhone, and another Mashable piece listing free iPhone apps that can help one manage their own finances. 

The unrest in Libya was second at 13%, followed by a story (at 7%) about a man named Carlos Garcia who started a project called Living Philanthropic through which he donated small amounts of money to various charities each day for an entire year.

Google was No. 4, at 6%, as Twitterers linked to a story about the company’s donation of $2.7 million to the Vienna-based International Press Institute to foster innovation in journalism. This gift is part of Google’s 2010 commitment to donate $5 million to nonprofit organizations working on furthering digital journalism.

And a conflict between Twitter and a company called UberMedia over social media apps that had been shut down due to privacy concerns was the fifth biggest subject, also at 6%.

Standoff in Wisconsin

The political stalemate in Wisconsin triggered a larger debate among bloggers about the value of labor unions-which are a crucial element of the Democratic Party’s financial, organizational and electoral base.

Many conservatives agreed with a Los Angeles Times column by Jonah Goldberg who argued that while there may have been some value to private-sector unions at one time, public unions have no such worth. Instead, he wrote, they are a "50-year mistake" that should be eradicated because their political power goes against the public interest.

"The public unions may profess that their ‘democratic’ or ‘Egyptian-style’ campaign of protests concerns their collective bargaining ‘privilege’ (it’s not a ‘right’), but a deeper look at the issue shows that the ‘bargain’ between union and government is yet again a collective rip-off of the private taxpayer," assessed An Ebb and Flow.

"Weakening public unions will make Wisconsin leaner, more competitive, and less budget-constrained into the future," predicted Chops at Global Review. "Public unionization is an anti-competitive practice aimed at shifting wealth from all taxpayers to a particular interest group; weakening or ending it will improve and cheapen government services."

The 14 Democratic state senators who left Wisconsin in order to prevent the passage of a bill that would remove collective bargaining rights from public employees also came under fire.

"Democratic lawmakers are forcing a government shutdown by turning tail and heading out of state rather than, you know, doing the job they have been paid to do by the taxpayers of their state," derided Dean at Beers with Demo. "Elections do have consequenses and for the citizens of Wisconsin…these consequenses mean, instead of having to face some legislative unpleasantries, certain lawmakers behave like abject cowards and abdicate their duties and responsibilities to the people they serve."*

To others, though, Walker’s actions represented an assault on unions and the middle class that needed to be thwarted.

"Governor Walker’s attack on human rights is unlike anything I’ve seen in the U.S. during my adult lifetime," concluded David Yamada at Minding the Workplace. "He is using the state’s budget woes as a pretext to justify denying workers the right to bargain over their compensation and benefits. Hard bargaining at the negotiation table in the midst of tough economic times is one thing, but moving to deny workers a collective voice is pure thuggery."

"When the government makes bad decisions, people must stand-up," declared New World. "Gov. Scott Walker (R) is making a bad decision and the people know it…Gov. Walker has shown-like many elected officials-where his true allegiance resides-with the corporation."

For many, the conflict became as much about Obama as anything else when he voiced support for unions and opposition to Walker. Most of those critiques were quite negative.

"The proper role of a chief executive isn’t to pick sides," posted For Attribution. "It’s to promote the advancement of everyone. Obama…would do well to remember that [he has] a responsibility to help all Americans get ahead, not just those who carry union cards in their wallets."

"It is now obvious that the President of the United States is actively involved in encouraging civil unrest in Wisconsin," charged The War on Socialism. "Mr. Obama has demonstrated what many of us already knew: he has no respect for federalism or the rights of states to govern themselves as they see fit. He acts more like a third world dictator than the President of the United States."

While lesser in number, Obama did have a few supporters online.

"It is nice to see that Obama is throwing some Democratic support for the Wisconsin people," praised Montag at The Burned Over District.


Most of the social media activity related to Libya last week involved conveying breaking news and information. For example, a number of Tweets highlighted a February 24 BBC report about the shrinking territory controlled by Gaddafi as he struggled to hold on to power.

It was also clear that almost all of social media users were cheering for the protestors and hoping for significant change. When Peru became the first country to suspend diplomatic relations with Libya over the use of force against civilians, it was praised.

"Thank you Peru for cutting ties with Libya over violence," tweeted Giv Parvaneh.

"Viva el Perú…" added David RL.

On blogs that addressed the situation, most of the discussion involved the difficult questions and uncertainty facing Libya in the coming months. The cautious tone resembled the attitude many bloggers took the previous week when discussing events in Egypt.

"I feel that the people in the country have a right to show what kind of country they really want…and that they should be able to have votes to choose their president," wrote Arya Ashoori. "We don’t know what will happen if Kadafi goes and if the country will get worse or better. There is so much knowledge being withheld and sometimes or most of the time we don’t know if we are getting the right information."

"…as this wave goes forward, it will most assuredly get bloodier. The remaining heads of these countries who stand to fall will not respect basic, peaceful calls for change," predicted a commentator named Bob915 at The Political Wire. "One can only hope it will succeed."   


For the fourth week in a row, protests in the Middle East were among the most popular news videos on YouTube.

Last week, a first-person video-apparently from Bahrain-was the No. 2 video. According to the description that accompanies the video, the scene is of protestors marching in the streets before several of them are shot by members of the Bahraini army. The video is available here. (Warning-the video contains graphic images)

The popularity of this video, along with the others from previous weeks, demonstrates how websites like YouTube relay images of events around the world and provide users with opportunities to view raw footage that would likely not be shown on traditional media.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube
For the Week of February 19-25, 2011

1. An awkward moment between two Australian news anchors

2. A video of protestors in Bahrain supposedly shot and killed by the country’s army (Warning-the video contains graphic images)

3. A video featuring Italian actor Roberto Benigni that has been removed due to a copyright claim

4. Another video featuring Italian actor Roberto Benigni that has been removed due to a copyright claim

5. A magician performs on a Turkish talent show

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’s New Media Index is 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, uses 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 (25 stories 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. 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 monitors the tracking site Tweetmeme. Similar to Icerocket, Tweetmeme measures the number of times a link to a particular story or blog post is tweeted and retweeted. Then, as we do with Icerocket, PEJ captures 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 list used on Icerocket offers the top links over the previous 48 hours.)

The Project also tracks the most popular news videos 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.