May 9, 2012

One Year After bin Laden’s Death, a Political Slant to the Story

Politics Straight Accounts War on Terror
All Media 43 18 17
Radio 80 1 10
Cable 76 6 2
Network 9 19 36
Online 24 46 16
Newspaper 38 27

43%–Amount of coverage of the anniversary of bin Laden’s death devoted to its impact on U.S. politics

Last week marked the anniversary of the U.S. raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden and stories about the al Qaeda leader’s death accounted for 12.5% of the newshole from April 30-May 6, 2012. While that is a significant amount of attention, it represents a fraction of the coverage (69%) that bin Laden’s death received in the week of May 2-8, 2011.

And one year after bin Laden’s demise, in the midst of a presidential campaign season, what was the main theme of last week’s coverage? According to a PEJ analysis, the largest component of bin Laden coverage (43%) was political, with much of it focusing on the event’s connection to the 2012 election.

The political angle to the story flared up when President Obama released an ad questioning whether his presumptive Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, would have ordered the raid. That triggered criticism from Republicans who argued that Obama was politicizing bin Laden’s death to help benefit his campaign.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that political angle to the bin Laden anniversary was most prominent in the two media sectors that include ideological talk shows–radio news, where it filled 80% of the airtime studied, and cable news, where it accounted for 76%.

After politics, there was a significant drop off to the next biggest themes in last week’s overall coverage–straight news accounts (18%) and the impact of bin Laden’s death on the war on terror (17%). 

The online sector devoted the highest percentage of coverage by far (46%) to straight news accounts. And television network newscasts led in coverage of the broader war on terror themes (36%), followed by newspapers, at 27%.

Newspapers had the least amount of overall bin Laden coverage of any media sector (5.2%) and 38% of it was about politics. That is a substantial amount, but far less than what viewers saw and heard on cable and radio.

Monica Anderson of PEJ