September 15, 2010

Newsmakers Who Come from Nowhere

# of Stories
Faisal Shahzad 196
Shirley Sherrod 92
Terry Jones 62
Joseph Stack 44
Alvin Greene 36
Omar Thornton 33
Jim Sikes 30
Colleen LaRose 28
John McClusky 28
Steven Slater 28

No. 3 – Rank of Pastor Terry Jones among unexpected headline makers of 2010

Until recently, Terry Jones, the pastor of a small church in Gainesville, Florida, was not exactly a household name. But Jones sparked an international firestorm, triggered widespread condemnation and generated major media coverage with his “burn a Koran day” marking the ninth anniversary of September 11. The pastor ultimately changed his plans. But the controversy filled a full 15% of the media newshole the week of September 6-12, making it the No. 2 story behind only the struggling economy, at 17%.

A number of public figures—from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh—criticized the media for their attention to Jones. But the leader of a congregation of around 50 people registered as a lead newsmaker in 64 stories examined by PEJ last week, generating more coverage than anyone other than President Obama. (To be considered a lead newsmaker, someone must be featured in at least 50% of a story.)

And on the roster of obscure figures who suddenly found themselves in the media spotlight in 2010, Jones generated the third highest level of coverage. (People included in this grouping were not previously known in fields ranging from the arts to politics to sports). And perhaps more than anyone else on the list, he triggered a debate about the newsworthiness of his actions.

Like Jones, a number of 2010’s top sudden newsmakers gained attention for negative reasons. Some were involved in terrorists or criminal acts.

Faisal Shahzad, charged in the attempted May 1 Times Square car bomb plot, is the No. 1 figure, registering as a lead newsmaker in 197 stories. Colleen LaRose (aka Jihad Jane), the Philadelphia resident whose arrest for aiding terrorists was made public in March, is tied for No. 8 on the list, at 28 stories.

Joseph Stack, who flew his plane into a Texas IRS building in February, killing himself and one other, was No. 4, a lead newsmaker in 44 stories. Omar Thornton generated 34 stories after he killed eight co-workers in August at the beer distribution company where he had worked. And John McClusky, tied for eighth with 28 stories, made news when he and his fiancé escaped from an Arizona jail and were on the run for three weeks before being captured in August. Some coverage depicted the couple as a modern day Bonnie and Clyde.

Another top newsmaker was embroiled in controversy. Jim Sikes (No. 7 with 30 stories) made headlines back in early March when he called 911 and claimed his Toyota Prius was speeding out of control and unable to stop. The story came amidst a series of Toyota recalls for “‘sticky accelerator” and brake problems, but significant doubt has been cast on his version of the events.

Several other sudden newsmakers have recently been in the headlines for very different reasons. Shirley Sherrod, the Department of Agriculture worker who was initially forced out of her job after a misleadingly edited video of a NAACP speech made her appear racist, was No. 2 at 97 stories. And Steven Slater, (tied for No. 8 with 28 stories) gained near-cult status in August when he quit his job as a Jet Blue flight attendant by cursing the passenger, grabbing a beer, and deploying the emergency exit slide. That case is currently being investigated.

One politician, perhaps the biggest surprise in a surprising election season, did make our list of unexpected newsmakers. Alvin Greene, an unemployed military veteran who is facing felony obscenity charges, stunned political observers when he emerged as the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate from South Carolina without running an active campaign. He has been a newsmaker in 36 stories, making him No. 5 on our list.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ