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Social and Traditional Media Agree: Botched Terror Attack Is Big News

PEJ New Media Index December 28, 2009 – January 1, 2010

In a rare occurrence, three central elements of today’s news ecosystem—the mainstream media, blogs and Twitter—agreed on the biggest story of the week, in this case, the failed Christmas Day terror attempt.

From December 28, 2009 to January 1, 2010, more than half (52%) of the news links in blogs were about the attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Many bloggers assigned blame for the attack that led to the indictment of 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, with most putting the onus on the Obama administration. Others expressed frustration over new safety restrictions that stemmed from the incident. And a substantial number of bloggers questioned whether citizens and the government were overreacting to the threat of terrorism.

On Twitter, the story wasn’t as dominant (23% of news-related links), but it still topped the news agenda. And Twitterers brought an additional focus: a report about two bloggers visited by Transportation Security Administration agents after they posted details of new screening processes for airline passengers implemented in the aftermath of the plane attack. A number of tweets expressed concern that the government was trying to intimidate bloggers.

Last week’s NCI from December 28, 2009-January 3, 2010 examined mainstream news coverage in one sector, daily newspapers. And the failed airliner plot was the top story, at 23% of the front-page newshole, with a narrative that moved from examining how the security system failed to the political implications for the Obama administration to the emergence of Yemen as a dangerous front in the fight against terror.

This is the first week since PEJ began monitoring the top stories on Twitter in June that the same subject has been No. 1 on newspaper front pages, blogs and Twitter.

Beyond the terrorist attempt, the No. 2  story in the blogosphere (8% of the week’s links) was the knighting of British actor Patrick Stewart, best known for his long-running role in the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” News about new anti-government protests in Iran that led to the deaths of at least 15 protestors finished third at 7%.

The fourth story (at 7%) was related to the failed terror attack, Senator Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) efforts to delay the confirmation of President Obama’s nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration. And fifth, at 6%, was a CNN story about a rare lunar occurrence. December 31 brought a second full moon that month, a phenomenon—referred to as a “blue moon”—that had not happened on New Year’s Eve in 20 years.

On Twitter, two animal stories ranked behind the airline terror plot in attention. The discovery, in a Philadelphia home, of 500 animal remains believed to have been sacrificed as part of a Santeria religious ritual received 19% of the news-related links. And the mysterious disappearance of the San Francisco sea lions who had visited Pier 39 every year since 1989 garnered 14% of the links. 

The next two stories on Twitter each had an international focus. The new protests and developments in Iran received 8% of the links, while a report about a Korean-American missionary named Robert Park believed to be held in North Korea was fifth with 7%.

The Fallout from Flight 523

As the week began, additional information surfaced about the failed terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 523 to Detroit, including news that the suspect’s father had warned the U.S. embassy in Nigeria that his son might be involved with radical groups. Many bloggers weighed in on the political and policy implications, with some Obama critics laying the blame squarely at the feet of the President.  

“As predicted by everyone knowledgeable on terrorism, Obama’s soft stance on war, and terrorism has emboldened the terrorists and they are working to strike America again,” declared Russ Alberson. “Once again thanks Obama for continuing to destroy our country and endanger Americans.”

“One final note on this serious terror attack—welcome to the real world, Barack Hussein Obama,” seconded Holger Awakens. “Not only are the islamic terrorists not buying into your plan of hugging them and telling them they are okay…they are continuing to attempt to kill the American people who you are charged with protecting.”*

A small number of bloggers worried about the implications for minority groups in the wake of the episode.

“The ever-growing number of bigots in America can barely restrain themselves as they silently thank Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for his botched attempt to blow up an airline,” wrote Jafar “Jeff” Siddiqui at Penjihad’s Blog. “The bigots will find their loudspeakers again, the politicians will become even more ‘patriotic’ and the hysteria will ratchet ever higher because the people of good will have lost their voices.”

Other commentators responded to an opinion piece on from author Bruce Schneier who characterized the country’s fear and response to terrorism as overkill and argued that such fear could imperil some of our national values and character.

Most of the bloggers who linked to Shneier’s piece agreed with his perspective.

“Americans are paying tens of billions of dollars in taxes to subject themselves to searches, seizures, regulations, and bureaucracy that does not work,” posted Connor Boyack. “It is imperative that we refuse the temptation to spend more money, inflate the government, and clamp down on innocent individuals in the name of providing security that—like a 99 cent magic trick—is merely an illusion.”

“You know what I am afraid of, though?” responded Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. “A country and a society that responds to 1 in 10 million odds with nonsensical security theatre that restricts my right to…pee. Every time we give up a right—even a tiny, seemingly insignificant one—the terrorists win.”

In a related discussion, some bloggers wondered about the impact of the response to the attack on future air travel.

“The TSA is reportedly set to impose new security rules that would cut off access to personal belongings during the final hour of flight,” explained Adam Ostrow at the popular social media blog “We’ll wait and see what official guidelines the TSA issues relating to electronics, but be it seems like we should be prepared for having a bit less time to finish that project in-flight.”

On Twitter, users focused on much of the same information as bloggers, but there was an additional story that gained traction.

A December 30 story reported that two bloggers had been interrogated by special agents from the TSA’s Office of Inspection after they posted a document explaining new screening procedures and restrictions following the failed terror plot. While the document was not classified, the bloggers received it from an anonymous source.

Users of social media were worried about a precedent being set for intimidating speech online.

“Apparently the TSA thinks we’re in a police state!” tweeted Seth Goldstein.

“Bloggers: start thinking like a journalists, and put a lawyer’s number in your phone’s address book,” advised Sheila Scarborough.

DeMint Holds a Nominee

The fourth subject on blogs was closely connected to the major topic of the week. In an effort to prevent TSA workers from joining unions, Senator Jim DeMint  placed a hold on Obama’s nominee to head the TSA, Erroll Southers. DeMint feared that Southers favored unionizing TSA workers which, he argued, would prevent the TSA from having the flexibility to make quick decisions. This drew significant criticism from liberals who connected it to the NWA terror plot.

“In yet another shining example of conservative politics trumping public safety, Republican Senator DeMint has held up President Obama’s appointment to that post,” criticized Btx3’s Blog.

“There is no doubt that crushing Barack Obama’s presidency is a priority for DeMint,” added Pete Muldoon at The Guerilla Post. “Is it so far fetched, then, to suggest that he would intentionally block Obama’s nominees in the hope that something bad would happen to the country?”

DeMint did have a few defenders.

“It’s pretty hard get indignant over DeMint for holding up Southers’ nomination for three months—if the post is so crucial, why did the Obama administration wait nine months to fill it?” wrote Mark Hemingway at A More Conservative Union. “DeMint’s stated reason for putting a hold on Southers’ nomination is a very valid national security concern…TSA effectiveness depends on rapid response to emerging threats…It’s hard to imagine that kind of flexibility under union rules.” 


The most viewed news video on YouTube last week was of a frightening situation that could have turned out much worse.   


Pope Benedict XVI was walking down the aisle on Christmas Eve preparing to perform Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica when a woman from the crowd jumped a divider and knocked him over. The incident was caught on camera by two Americans, MaryBeth and Steve Burns, who were also in the crowd.

The Associated Press’ video of the event, which included raw footage of the attack and images of Pope Benedict continuing the service, was viewed more than two million times. 

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

For the Week of December 26, 2009 – January 1, 2010

1. An Associated Press video of Pope Benedict XVI getting knocked down during Christmas Mass

2. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) slurs his words during a speech on the Senate floor leading some to believe he was intoxicated

3. Shane Dawson delivers a message claiming that both YouTube and his email account were hacked

4.  Surveillance video of man in China who threw a bicycle at two thieves on a motor-scooter who had snatched a woman’s purse

5. An ABC Nightline report about professional black women who have trouble getting married 


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.

A prominent Web tracking site Icerocket which, monitors millions of blogs, 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 Icerocket list of links, with the commentary in the traditional press. Note: When the NMI was launched in January 2009, another web-tracking site Technorati was similarly monitoring blogs and social media. PEJ originally captured both Technorati’s and Icerocket’s daily aggregation. In recent months, though, this component of Technorati’s site has been down with no indication of when it might resume. 

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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