May 18, 2011

When (and Why) bin Laden Made News

# of stories
Q3 2007 88
Q4 2007 24
Q1 2008 10
Q2 2008 11
Q3 2008 2
Q4 2008 2
Q1 2009 17
Q2 2009 10
Q3 2009 17
Q4 2009 2
Q1 2010 17
Q2 2010q 5
Q3 2010 1
Q4 2010 10
Jan-April 2011 1

1 –  Number of stories in the first four months of 2011 in which Osama bin Laden was a dominant newsmaker

The May 1 raid in Abbottabad Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden put the world’s most wanted terrorist at the top of the news agenda. According to PEJ’s News Coverage Index, from May 2-8, his death accounted for 69% of the newshole, making it the biggest single-week story since PEJ began tracking this in January 2007.  

For that week, bin Laden was also a dominant newsmaker in 28% (241 stories) of all stories studied by PEJ—a level not seen since President Obama’s inauguration more than two years earlier. (To be considered a dominant newsmaker, someone must be featured in at least 50% of a story.)

But despite the extensive media attention to his death, a look at bin Laden coverage over the past four years shows a generally low level of coverage of the terror leader, with the exception of a few spikes. That coverage rarely focused on efforts to find and capture bin Laden or even to discuss his role in global terrorism. Instead, the al Qaeda leader made significant news for one thing—the release of a video or audio clip, which he would do at anniversaries to significant events or if he could tie an international event back to himself or al Qaeda. Then media attention to the video tended to fade quickly.

For example, coverage in the third quarter of 2007, when bin Laden was a newsmaker in 88 stories (the most attention generated by far) was fueled by the release of two videos marking the 9/11 anniversary. One condemned the U.S. and encouraged Americans to embrace Islam, and the other was directed at Pakistanis and urged jihad against then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

In mid 2008 (11 stories), coverage of bin Laden focused on a video he released coinciding with Israel’s 60 year anniversary, calling for destruction of Israel and liberation of Palestine.

In early 2009, bin Laden released a 22-minute video addressing newly elected President Obama on issues ranging from the economy to Israel (17 stories). During the next spike, in the third quarter of 2009, bin Laden released a message claiming that the U.S. will lose the Afghan War and that Europe should withdraw its forces (17 stories).

In the first quarter of 2010 (17 stories), bin Laden used the debate over how to try alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khaled Sheikh Muhammed, to again threaten the U.S. in a video. He said there would be more American deaths if KSM was executed.

And in the fourth quarter of 2010 (10 stories), bin Laden released a video criticizing Muslim nations for not providing enough aid as much of Pakistan flooded.

But immediately prior to the SEAL attack on his compound, the al Qaeda leader had virtually vanished from U.S. mainstream media coverage. Indeed in the first four months of 2011 bin Laden was a dominant newsmaker in only one story.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ