May 5, 2011

How the Media Have Covered bin Laden’s Death

In the first three days since the death of Osama bin Laden, the attention given to the event in both traditional and new media has been only nominally focused on the political ramifications of the terrorist’s death.

Instead, the discussion across a broad range of mainstream media, on Facebook, Twitter and in the blogosphere, has centered on trying to sort out what happened and on people’s feelings about it—including significant debate in social media over whether the reports might be a hoax. But so far the coverage has defied the tendency seen in many major national news events to turn quickly partisan.

In the mainstream press, coverage has focused on trying to parse out the details leading up to and during the dramatic raid, and on sorting through the national and international reaction to it. Those two themes together accounted for half the bin Laden coverage since Sunday night, May 1, and through Wednesday, May 4.

On Facebook and Twitter, meanwhile, citizens have used these social media tools to express black humor about bin Laden’s death. The largest share of discussion there, 19%, has involved people sharing jokes. The second largest theme involved the question of whether bin Laden was really dead, and weighing the pros and cons of the proof offered. That discussion accounted for 17% of the conversation.

And in the blogosphere, which often takes a contrarian view to that offered in the mainstream media, the largest share of the discussion (14%) involved passing along news about the raid. Almost as much (13%) concerned fears about possible reprisals for bin Laden’s death. And a notable amount of the discussion, 10%, involved the hoax theme.
In the political discussion that did occur, bloggers were evenly divided over whether President Obama deserved more credit or whether the policies of President Bush did. On Facebook and Twitter, conversation crediting Obama is twice that praising Bush.

These are some of the findings of a special report on media attention to bin Laden’s death produced by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The report used computer technology by Crimson Hexagon that examined more than 120,000 news stories, 100,000 blog posts, and 6.9 million posts on Twitter or Facebook from May 1 through May 4.

There is no doubt the bin Laden story is huge. The early wall-to-wall coverage of the bin Laden story accounted for an extraordinary 89% of the mainstream media newshole on May 2 and May 3, as measured by PEJ’s ongoing News Coverage Index. At this pace, bin Laden’s death would easily be the biggest weekly story since the NCI began in January 2007.

In an age when the media dialogue is thought to move at lightning speed, however, what may be most striking is how little the coverage and discussion on this topic have shifted since the event occurred Sunday, May 1. Humor, which was a strong initial response, has dropped off some in social media, but it still remains one of the most prevalent themes on Facebook and Twitter. Otherwise, the discussion over the first few days has remained fundamentally unchanged, deepening rather than quickly moving on to new dimensions of story in the way that we typically see, sometimes before the facts are fully reported. The calculus over who will benefit politically, for instance, has not shifted substantially. Similarly, the suspicions that bin Laden’s death was a hoax have not changed appreciably.

To produce this analysis, the Project matched its conventional coding with software provided by Crimson Hexagon, which allows researchers to analyze the conversation online from thousands of blogs and Twitter, Facebook and mainstream news sources in larger quantities and at faster rates than human coding can produce. According to Crimson Hexagon, their technology analyzes content “by identifying statistical patterns in the words used to express opinions on different topics.” PEJ ran three separate monitors for this report: one for mainstream news, one for blogs, and one for Twitter and Facebook combined. For each monitor, PEJ used the same Boolean search to identify relevant posts (Osama OR Laden). PEJ created a list of themes that were present in each medium related to the coverage or discussions about bin Laden’s death, and trained the monitors to recognize the presence of each theme in online text. Crimson Hexagon’s software then analyzed millions of posts and news stories to determine the percentages of conversation that fell into each category.

Reconstruction and Reaction in the Mainstream Media

In unraveling exactly how the United States found and killed Osama bin Laden, the mainstream press found themselves reporting not only on an event of major consequence, but on an operation so viscerally daring and compelling it almost seemed more like the product of a Hollywood scriptwriter than the White House Situation Room.

One quarter (25%) of the mainstream media coverage monitored from May 1 through May 4 involved reconstructing the commando mission at bin Laden’s secret hiding place. This New York Times report was typical: “Military and intelligence officials first learned last summer that a ‘high-value target’ was being protected in the compound and began working on a plan for going in to get him. Beginning in March, Mr. Obama presided over five national security meetings at the White House to go over plans for the operation.”

While that narrative was at its peak on May 2, it remained a substantial part of the coverage as the media learned new details, such as the fact that bin Laden was not armed as initially reported, and that the al Qaeda chief had made plans to escape any such attack. Over time, and as the decision was made on May 4 not to release photos of the deceased al Qaeda leader, coverage trying to reconstruct what happened during the raid grew.

The second-biggest storyline in the mainstream press was also one that involved reporting more than analysis. It detailed reactions to bin Laden’s death from around the world and around the country, and accounted for 24% of the bin Laden coverage monitored. A Virginia television station, for instance, told of the mother of a sailor killed in the attack against the U.S.S. Cole who cried for joy until “I don’t have any more tears.” A Reuters report on the response of Palestinian leaders found the more moderate Palestinian Authority lauding the news and the more hard-line Hamas condemning the killing.

A number of other storylines trail well behind these top two, bunched closely between 6% and 11%, including the role of Pakistan in the episode, the potential impact on U.S. foreign policy and accounts of bin Laden’s life and legacy.

Yet the subject of political fallout and partisanship not only failed to emerge as a major theme (it filled 11% of the bin Laden coverage), it also did not begin to accelerate in any dramatic way. Some horserace speculation appeared, such as a Wall Street Journal story suggesting President Obama will likely get “an immediate boost in popularity.” But for a mainstream media culture that reflexively seeks out conflict, the coverage so far has projected a greater sense of national unity and that has persisted through the week.

Jokes and Hoax on Facebook and Twitter

While most mainstream media coverage is produced by professional journalists, the social media tools of Facebook and Twitter reflected more of the ordinary citizen response to the events of May 1. It also might be the most robust in quantity. Indeed, PEJ’s use of Crimson Hexagon captured nearly 7 million posts over the three days about bin Laden.  These social media users evinced a distinct news agenda, one dominated by the platforms’ central function of sharing and spreading news and information, something PEJ has often seen in its weekly New Media Index reports.

The leading overall narrative on Twitter and Facebook (at 19% of the conversation) was the sharing of jokes, which has become something of a national ritual and emotional outlet for momentous events from the triumphant to the tragic.

The humor ranged from the topical (“Breaking News: Donald Trump demands Osama Bin Laden’s death certificate”) to insult comedy. One such joke showed checkmarks next to the names of three deceased global villains—Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein and bin Laden—and then included the name of a living pop star who apparently rubs some people the wrong way.

The prevalence of the joke-telling decreased from May 1 to May 4, but as late as May 3, no other topic was generating more attention.

The second major theme involved debating whether bin Laden was dead. Fully 17% of the conversation on Twitter and Facebook involved the idea that the U.S. government was perpetrating a hoax in telling the world it had killed bin Laden on May 1.

One Facebook post the afternoon of May 3 read: “Did osama bin laden really die. No authentic photos, no dna evidence, not even dental evidence. Hmmm i dont think that he really did.”

A day before, @DaftLimmy tweeted: “The body of Osama Bin Laden has been “buried at sea”. How very, very convenient.”

Some percentage of this discussion, however, involved people arguing with the skeptics and contending the evidence was clear.

People also used Twitter and Facebook to simply share with each other the news that bin Laden was dead. All told, this filled 14% of the conversation monitored on these platforms.

Some posts were powerful in their brevity. “Osama Bin Laden is dead—CNBC,” noted one user. Others were considerably more demonstrative: “WWOW. I WAS JUST ON CNN AND THEY JUST SAID THAT OSAMA BIN LADEN IS CONFIRMED TO BE DEAD….WOW”.

Here, too, politics was overshadowed by other topics. The question of political fallout and who deserved credit for the mission—Obama or his predecessor, George W. Bush—combined to account for 15% of the coverage, with more Twitter and Facebook users giving the nod to the current president. One somewhat interesting trend is that on May 3 and May 4, the credit gap between the two men closed somewhat as conservatives seemed to push for more credit going to Bush. But attention to the credit narrative was actually smaller on May 4 than May 1.

Conspiracies and Concerns in the Blogosphere

In the last two years that PEJ has monitored blogging each week, we have found that the discussion on any given issue often tends to break along partisan lines and to divide in fairly broad ways. That has not been the case with the bin Laden story. One of the things that has distinguished the early discussion of the event in the blogosphere is that it has been more wide-ranging and balanced than in the other media platforms.

Five different themes accounted for between 10% and 14% of the discussion in the blogosphere and none accounted for more than 14%.

PEJ’s weekly New Media Index also tends to find that bloggers take a more contrarian or skeptical view of events than found in traditional media. Two of the top themes in the blogosphere fit that description and involved concerns that got less attention in the mainstream press. One of them (at 13%) was fear or unease about the potential retribution for the raid. In that vein, a number of bloggers reprinted sections of an Associated Press story reporting the Homeland Security Department’s warning of possible retaliatory attacks. That was the No. 2 storyline in blogs, just behind straight accounts of what happened (14%).

The second contrarian thread, which also was prominent on Twitter and Facebook (10%), was the idea that bin Laden’s death was a hoax. One such blogger declared that “it is common knowledge in intelligence circles that Bin Laden died in December, 2001, due to an untreated lung complication.” Another similarly wondered if perhaps “Obama’s dead corpse has been on ice for the best part of a decade.”

In many of the weekly NMI reports that study blogs, significant attention is paid to the political or partisan debate of the moment. But as in the other parts of the media ecosystem in the days following the May 1 raid, that was not a major element of the discussion among blogs. Combined, the question of whether Bush or Obama should get credit for the outcome accounted for 14% of the conversation. But the verdict was very mixed at 7% apiece and perhaps more significantly, attention to those narratives diminished after May 1 and remained flat for the next three days.

That was one more sign that bloggers, like Twitter and Facebook users and mainstream journalists, were using the first few days after the killing of bin Laden to process the enormity of what happened, rather than seize on the event as another proxy for our ongoing arguments about politics and policy.

About this Report

A number of PEJ staff members assisted in the production of this special report, “Steering Clear of Politics: How the Media Has Covered bin Laden’s Death.” They include: researcher Kevin Caldwell, senior researcher Paul Hitlin, research associate Jesse Holcomb, researcher Nancy Vogt, researcher and coder Steve Adams, associate director Mark Jurkowitz, deputy director Amy Mitchell, director Tom Rosenstiel and press relations associate Dana Page.

In conducting the research for this report, PEJ used software provided by Crimson Hexagon which analyzes the conversation online from thousands of blogs, Twitter, Facebook and mainstream news sources.  According to Crimson Hexagon, their technology analyzes content “by identifying statistical patterns in the words used to express opinions on different topics.”

Information on the tool itself can be found at www.crimsonhexagon.com and the in depth methodologies can be found here http://www.crimsonhexagon.com/products/whitepapers/.

The time frame for the analysis was May 1 to 4, 2011. PEJ ran three separate monitors for this report: one for mainstream news, one for blogs, and one for Twitter and Facebook combined. For each monitor, PEJ used the same Boolean search to identify relevant posts (Osama OR Laden). This resulted in a sample of more than 120,000 news stories, 100,000 blog posts, and 6.9 million posts on Twitter or Facebook. (Note: Facebook only allows a sample of their publicly available posts to be analyzed by third party applications.)

PEJ created a list of themes that were present in each medium related to the coverage or discussions about bin Laden’s death, and trained the monitors to recognize the presence of each theme in online text. Crimson Hexagon’s software then analyzed millions of posts and news stories to determine the percentages of conversation that fell into each category.

The amount of coverage devoted to the story in the mainstream press was derived from PEJ’s News Coverage Index. The full methodology for the NCI is available here.

For the complete topline, click here.