Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Once Again, Sarah Palin and Iran Draw the Attention of Social Media

PEJ New Media Index July 13-17, 2009

Blogs, Twitter and YouTube last week each led with very different stories, and none of them overlapped with the leading subjects in traditional media, according to the New Media Index by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

While the mainstream press attended to the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, social media showed very little interest in the largely drama-free proceedings. There, Sarah Palin and Iran were the biggest topics along with a number of unusual stories on subjects such as manipulative cats, hungry robots and Twitter technology.

In fact, of the top 10 stories in the traditional press last week, only one-the health care debate-also showed up among the leading stories in the blogosphere or on Twitter.


Following Palin, the next two largest stories illustrate a trend PEJ has noted about the blogosphere, which often elevates offbeat reports that originate in the traditional press, but receive very little attention there.

Coming in second, at 17% of the links, was a BBC story about the power of cats. It cited researchers at the University of Sussex who claim to have discovered that some cats have learned to manipulate their owners’ emotions by emitting a specific kind of purr.

Third, at 15%, were conflicting reports about robots designed by the Pentagon that will be powered by eating biomass and extracting energy from the surrounding environment. A number of media outlets first reported that the robots would be powered by matter that included animal and human remains. However, these reports proved incorrect as the Pentagon insisted that the robots will feed on materials such as grass clippings, twigs and wood chips. Most of the bloggers who discussed the story linked to a report on which has since taken down its original story and replaced it with one saying that the robots will be “vegetarians.”

The New Media Index also monitors the most-linked-to news stories on Twitter as measured by the tracking service Tweetmeme. And on Twitter, the protests in Iran dominated news-related links for the fifth week in a row. The attention to the turmoil in Iran did decrease somewhat, though, falling to 42% last week from 72% the previous week. That is the lowest percentage of links about Iran since the protests began in mid-June. But it still reflects a high level of interest in a story that has almost vanished from the mainstream news agenda as protests have diminished and the situation has become more difficult to monitor.     

The No. 2 Twitter topic last week were stories accounting for 22% of the week’s links that illustrated the popularity of Twitter technology itself.

And the star of YouTube last week? President Obama himself-and the rumors circulating about a recent photo. Viewed more than 700,000 times, the two most watched videos were of an ABC News story debunking the notion that a photo taken during the recent G8 Summit showed Obama admiring the backside of a passing woman. The ABC report used a video of the event to conclude that Obama was doing no such thing.

Bloggers Focus on the “Maverick” from Alaska

Since Sarah Palin announced her resignation as governor of Alaska on July 3, many in the blogosphere have debated why she decided to step down and what her political future might be.

This discussion intensified when the Los Angeles Times published a July 13 story quoting a number of Republicans openly criticizing her with such words as “quitter” and “train wreck.”

Some took the story as a sign that Palin’s future in national politics would be limited.

“Love her or hate her, you have to admit this: somebody as divisive as former Gov. Sarah Palin just isn’t a viable candidate for president,” declared Christopher Francis. “The L.A. Times tells us today what most of us already knew: Palin is that person GOP bigwigs don’t want around.”

Palin’s supporters saw things very differently.

“If the detractors want to destroy Sarah Palin they better finish the job. Because the truth is that she is getting more powerful everyday,” warned Fools to the left and jokers to the right! “More people are seeing how unfair these attacks are and these people are not involved in the political process.”

“Don’t be a bit surprised if we wake up the morning after the election in 2012 to find out that we’ve chosen a woman to clean up the mess in Washington,” added Joshuapundit.

The focus shifted when Palin entered into the fray with a column for the Washington Post, voicing her opposition to the energy bill because she feared it would be damaging to the economy. Some bloggers felt her piece hit the nail on the head.

“The op-ed piece you wrote in the Post about Cap and Trade was not only right on the mark, but hit the exact tone and language many of us need to hear,” wrote Ashok at Rethink. “We need a general outline of a given situation, the arguments presented, and the facts that support one position or another: without any wasted words you made your case.”

Some of Palin’s detractors, however, not only questioned her position, but also her motives.

“Palin clearly wants to be relevant in her forthcoming post-resignation days, and what better way than by declaring herself the lead spokesperson attacking efforts to stop climate change?” asked Kevin Grandia at desmogblog. “In true GOP fashion, Palin seeks to put the fear of God and all things scary into readers minds, foretelling an apocalyptic future for any who subscribe to the idea that we need to curb carbon emissions to save the climate and protect our economy from carbon dependence.”*

Twitter Looks at Iran and…Twitter

As Twitter users continue to focus on the protests in Iran more than any other story, the main source for news about breaking events continues to be a set of “Green Briefs” compiled by an Iranian translator named Josh Shahryar. These briefs include short summations of events related to the protests that Shahryar has put together through other tweets he considers reliable.

The briefs (such as this one from July 16) have become a popular and simple way for Twitter users to stay abreast of ongoing developments. They have been translated into a number of languages including Spanish, German, and French, and they list ways that readers can help the cause by passing information on or by compiling relevant news stories from around Twitter and the larger Web.

Following Iran, two stories about Twitter itself drew interest last week, making up almost a quarter of the week’s links.

The first was a July 15 feature in the British newspaper the Guardian which profiled the San Francisco offices of the company that runs Twitter. The story was so popular that on the morning of July 15, more than 545 different tweets linked to the story-far more than any other single story received last week. The author of the piece, Bobby Johnson, found the offices surprisingly calm despite the fact that Twitter has become such a worldwide sensation.

The other Twitter-related story showed just how pervasive the online communication site has become. On July 14, published a story about a woman who tweeted her way through a bank heist. Annemarie Dooling was in a Manhattan bank when someone decided to hold it up.

“My bank was just held up — with me in it. HSBC 34 and 8,” she tweeted to her 1,900 followers. In a later email sent to the Associated Press, Dooling explained, “Honestly, the cops were called and everyone was safe and my main concern was reaching out to my friends, fam, and co-workers, which is why I tweeted.”

Top YouTube Videos

If Governor Palin was the main attraction in the blogosphere last week, then President Obama was the star of the news videos on YouTube. Three of the five most viewed news videos featured Obama.

The first two clips were from the same July 10 report from ABC’s Good Morning America, which included a still photograph of Obama at the recent G8 Summit. The photo appeared to depict Obama in an embarrassing position admiring a woman’s backside. The ABC story, however, included a video clip of the incident which made it clear that Obama was in the process of helping someone down the stairs when the photo was taken. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, however, was not as lucky as the video did not seem to vindicate him from the same accusation, according to the ABC report.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

July 11 -17, 2009

1. A July 10 report on ABC’s Good Morning America that debunks the rumor that a photograph of President Obama at a recent G8 Summit caught him admiring a woman’s backside.

2. The same ABC clip about Obama with a title and description in Portuguese.

3. A dashboard camera video of a traffic stop in Louisiana where a policeman wrestled with a man who allegedly had drugs in his mouth and died several minutes later.

4. Video of a giant squid washing up on a California shore.

5. A clip titled “Obama Booed at All-Star Game In St. Louis” that shows the President throwing out the first pitch at the Major League Baseball game.


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 has launched the New Media Index as 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.

Two prominent Web tracking sites, Technorati and Icerocket, monitor more than 100 million blogs and over 250 million pieces of social media, using 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 (50 stories in all 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. This process allows us to compare the New Media commentary, based on the Technorati and Icerocket list of links, with the commentary in the traditional press.

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 monitored the tracking site Tweetmeme. Similar to Icerocket and Technorati, Tweetmeme measures the number of times a link to a particular story or blog post is tweeted and retweeted. Then, as we do with Technorati and Icerocket, PEJ captured 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 lists used on Technorati and Icerocket offer the top links over the previous 48 hours.)

The Project also tracks the most popular news video on YouTube each week.  

*For the sake of authenticity, PEJ has a policy of not correcting misspellings or grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes from blog postings.

Note: PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index includes Sunday newspapers while the New Media Index is Monday through Friday.


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