A news report that challenges conventional wisdom, especially one about a personal/cultural topic like religion, is often rich fodder for online conversation. This was the case last week as a survey showing that atheists and agnostics were more knowledgeable about religion than followers of major faiths drew significant attention.
For the week of September 27 to October 1, almost a quarter (23%) of the news links on blogs were to a Los Angeles Times story about the survey, making it the No. 1 subject, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that non-believers were able to answer more questions about religion correctly than believers, even when one controlled for educational background. It also showed that people were also ill-informed on some of the questions related to their own religion. A majority of Protestants, for example, were unable to identify Martin Luther as the primary figure behind the Protestant Reformation. (The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Project for Excellence in Journalism are both are part of the Pew Research Center.)
While news stories about the survey were popular online, part of the appeal of the subject was a series of interactive surveys on the Web. On the Pew Forum website, visitors could take a shortened version of the quiz to compare their own knowledge to that of the general public. In the first week it was posted, the quiz was taken more than a million times. In addition, both CNN.com and NYTimes.com also offered versions of the quiz.
Bloggers who discussed the results generally fell into two camps. One group, constituting a majority of bloggers, considered themselves atheists or agnostics and welcomed the results. The other, much smaller, group consisted of people of faith who either saw the results as a wake-up call, or had problems with the notion of faith being tied to knowledge rather than beliefs. In both cases, many bloggers made personal connections to the news as they described their own religious journeys.
The No. 2 story on blogs last week, at 15%, involved a controversial legal and national security issue. According to a September 25 Washington Post article, the Obama administration urged a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit over its targeting of a U.S. citizen living overseas with alleged ties to Al Qaeda. The administration claimed the case would reveal state secrets while civil liberties groups argued that the government should not have unchecked powers to assassinate American citizens without due process.
Overwhelmingly, bloggers condemned Obama's position and worried about a precedent being set for future potential abuses of power.
Two different subjects tied for No. 3 on blogs with 9% of the links. One was a column in the Washington Post by Princeton philosophy Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah suggesting that future generations will condemn the current one for institutions such as the prison system and practices such as industrial meat production. The other story was a September 26 Los Angeles Times report about comments made by former CIA Director Michael Hayden that the president should have the authority to shut down the Internet in times of crisis.
The fifth story, at 7%, was the discovery by astronomers of Gliese 581G, the first planet found in another solar system believed to have the basic conditions needed to support extraterrestrial life.
On Twitter, two of the top five stories were technology related. But the other three included a sports scandal, a scientific discovery and an unfortunate culinary surprise.
The top story, with 13% of the links, was a BBC report about a British food production company forced to pay a fine after a man found a dead mouse embedded in a loaf of bread. Tweeters were disgusted with the unappetizing discovery.
"Don't Look if You Want to Enjoy Your Next Meal," warned a Tweet from the The Stir: Food & Party channel.*
The announcement of Blackberry's Playbook, its answer to Apple's tablet iPad device, was second at 12%, followed by a report about Google's plans to announce a new computer image format that will decrease file sizes by as much as 40 percent compared to the popular JPEG file format.
The fourth story (at 6%) was the discovery in Peru of a 36 million year-old fossil from a giant penguin. The animal was believed to be about five feet tall and weigh nearly twice as much as an Emperor penguin, the largest living species.
And news that 2010 Tour de France winner, Spaniard Alberto Contador, tested positive for a banned substance and has since been suspended was fifth with 5%. The cycling world has long been riddled with rumors and speculation about performance enhancing drugs. On Twitter, the story was particularly popular with people writing in Spanish as many noted that suspicions about Contador had persisted for months.
Religion and Knowledge
Last week, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a phone survey of 3,412 Americans testing their knowledge about various world religions. Each person was asked a series of 32 questions. On average, Americans answered 16 correctly. However, the results that drew the most attention showed that certain groups got more right than others. Athiests and agnostics averaged 20.9 correct, which was the highest number, followed closely by Jews and Mormons. Protestants, on the other hand, averaged 16 correct answers while Catholics averaged 14.7.
The Los Angeles Times' story about the Pew Forum study raised the question as to why an atheist would do better on the survey than a member of a major religion. A number of bloggers claimed to have the answer.
"Atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a very religious tradition and consciously gave it up," wrote Linguist-in-Waiting. "Religious believers mostly are believers simply because they felt like clinging to tradition, and they never bothered questioning their beliefs."
"We atheists tend to be a thinking bunch," declared Small Town Atheist. "We care more about whether or not what we think is true rather than if it makes us feel good...We listen to claims of religions (and scientists, politicians, ghost hunters etc.) and we think critically. Most religious people either can't be bothered to-or have been trained to-not analyze what they're being told."
A number of bloggers connected the news to their own spiritual history.
"Luckily, I'm one of those smart agnostic people the article mentioned, but this only came about because like all confused, nonreligious, young people I've gone through what I like to call ‘the search,'" shared Cassandra at Cassagram before describing various experiences she had with different religions.
For some religious bloggers, the survey missed the point.
"What person can really know about God if they don't believe in His existence or deny His deity," wondered Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb at Soul Rhythms. "This study, as I read it, addresses the information-gathering side of religion more than the internal knowledge of God. It misses the experiential side of knowing God, as it measures what's in the head and not the heart."
Others were troubled by the respondents' lack of knowledge about their own religion.
"This should be a clarion call to Catholics - we NEED to know our faith," proclaimed Marcel at Aggie Catholics. "It isn't enough to accept what our parents believe-we NEED to examine the doctrines of the Church to appropriate them as adults ourselves."
"This brings us to complacency, which is a horrible thing in ANY aspect of life," determined Jason Mudd. "Many people who come to meet and know God and accept him think that they are done, when in fact they have only begun a very long journey...All believers in faith need to know that the acknowledgement of faith is just the beginning, and that their relationship with Christ is much like a long walk through the woods-there will be ups, downs, hazards, beautiful views and the occasional storm."
Obama Invokes State Secrets
The overwhelming majority of bloggers who addressed the controversy surrounding the White House's decision to ask a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit about an assassination attempt of a U.S. citizen overseas expressed serious Constitutional concerns. Civil liberties groups sued the U.S. government on behalf of the father of Anwar al-Aulaqi, a cleric believed to be living in Yemen, claiming that the order to kill al-Aulaqi amounted to an extrajudicial execution. Last April, al-Aulaqi became the first U.S. citizen added to a list of suspected terrorists the CIA is authorized to kill due to his ties to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner.
"People can be killed on the orders of a president with no trial, no sentence, no due process-not even an indictment? I don't want to live in any country that allows such actions," explained Debra Sweet.
"Claiming the power to assassinate Americans is odious enough, but the Obama administration has raised the stakes by claiming the courts cannot hear the case," posted Justin Blank at Wintry Smile. "Given the way the state secrets claim is made, does anyone imagine that the administration would ever allow a legal challenge to any assassination without crying about state secrets?"
And a number of bloggers reprinted excerpts from a column by Salon's Glenn Greenwald.
"At this point, I didn't believe it was possible, but the Obama administration has just reached an all-new low in its abysmal civil liberties record," Greenwald wrote. "But what's most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is ‘state secrets:' in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are ‘state secrets,' and thus no court may adjudicate their legality."
It would seem unlikely that many people would be interested in watching a video of a Swiss politician delivering a speech about meat imports. But when the speaker loses control, a clip of the event can become a viral sensation.
The most viewed news video on YouTube last week was of Swiss Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz delivering a parliamentary speech on the rather wonkish topic of spiced meat imports. However, during the reading of his prepared text, Merz began giggling and laughing uncontrollably. According to the Guardian, Merz was "particularly amused by the bureaucratic language in which the bill was written."
The minister has become a worldwide figure because of the video, which has been viewed more than 1.2 million times since it was posted on September 20. One maker of air-dried meats has even taken to advertise their products using the slogan: "Never lose your sense of humour."
Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube For the Week of September 25 - October 1, 2010
1. Swiss finance minister Hans-Rudolf Merz laughs uncontrollably while delivering a speech
2. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie confronts a heckler at a campaign rally
3. TV host Stephen Colbert testifies about immigration before a House subcommittee
4. Footage from the political campaign of Brazilian clown Tiririca while running for national office
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.)