August 18, 2010

First Lady in the Headlines

January 20, 2009 – August 15, 2010 % of Stories
Overseas Trips 23
Health Issues 22
Other Policy Issues 17
Family 9
Day-to-day Activities 7

23% – Percentage of stories about Michelle Obama focused on her overseas trips

Michelle Obama’s recent trip to Spain generated some media attention. Part of that coverage involved critics who argued that she shouldn’t have taken such a lavish vacation at a time when many Americans are struggling economically.

It’s perhaps no surprise that an overseas foray by the First Lady would make news. Since her husband was inaugurated January 20, 2009, almost one quarter (23%) of the stories prominently featuring Michelle Obama have focused on her travels abroad.

The trip that generated the most coverage was her April 2009 visit to Europe and the G-20 Summit. Her fashion style and a reputed faux pas in which the First Lady casually touched the Queen drove the news coverage. Michelle’s next biggest news making trip was to Denmark in late September 2009 when she and the president lobbied, unsuccessfully, to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago.

In her 19 months in the White House, Michelle Obama has also made headlines for her role in health-related issues, which accounted for 22% of the stories. Those issues ranged from the legislative battle over health care to her emergence as an advocate in the fight against childhood obesity.  

Another cluster of policy issues have accounted for a significant portion of her coverage—17% of the stories. Her involvement with education, racial and gender issues, and better treatment for military families were among the news makers.

She also became enmeshed in the immigration debate when—during a visit to a Maryland school in May 2010—a second grader told her “my mom doesn’t have papers,” in reference to Arizona’s immigration law. Mrs. Obama responded, “We have to fix that, and everybody’s got to work together in Congress to make sure that happens."

Another significant category of coverage has been about the Obama family—including everything from their new dog Bo to the purchase of a swing set for Sasha and Malia—which accounted for 9% of the Michelle Obama stories.

Rounding out the top five categories were stories (7%) about the First Lady’s day-to-day activities, such as trips to the farmers’ market and an art museum or hosting jazz students and musicians at the White House.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ