Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

An Altered BP Photo Leads the Blogosphere

PEJ New Media Index July 19-23, 2010

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Last week, the two most popular stories among bloggers highlighted the roles of—and differences between—traditional journalism and digital media in a rapidly changing news universe. 

An altered photograph of BP’s crisis center during its Gulf cleanup that was first identified by blogger John Aravosis of Americablog provided an example of how social media play an important role as fact-checkers. And a satirical piece by a Washington Post staffer focused on the dramatic changes in newspaper journalism—with much of online commentary coming from print journalists themselves.

For the week of July 19-23, 22% of the news links on blogs were about a Washington Post report on the photo that made the BP crisis center look busier than it was, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. (We do not believe Icerocket’s news source list includes Americablog which many bloggers linked to as well.) The revelation led many bloggers to attack the already sinking reputation of BP, while some celebrated the blogosphere’s role in catching corporate deception. 

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For the most part, bloggers who linked to Weingarten’s piece enjoyed his humor and supported his nostalgia for an earlier period of journalism. However, some saw it as another example of a longtime scribe who does not understand new media. 

Indeed, all top five subjects for bloggers last week linked to Washington Post stories. 

The third-largest story on blogs last week, at 14%, was a column from that paper’s ombudsman Andrew Alexander, who concluded that the Post had taken too long to cover a controversy over the Justice Department’s decision to narrow a voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party.

Fourth, at 10%, was the furor over an excerpt of a speech by Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod that was first posted on the website Big Government. The video, which was taken out of context, made Sherrod appear to be making racist remarks at an NAACP meeting and the Obama administration quickly forced her resignation. (Click here for a detailed chronology of the media storm that followed the unveiling of the video.) 

Bloggers linked to multiple stories involving the scandal including a Fox News transcript of Big Government proprietor Andrew Breitbart’s July 20 interview on Sean Hannity’s program and a Washington Post article about the July 21 apology to Sherrod from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for having ousted her in haste. The Sherrod story accounted for about one-third of the cable news airtime studied by PEJ last week, 3% of newspaper front-page coverage and finished overall as the No. 2 topic across mainstream media

And fifth, at 9%, was a Washington Post op-ed by Charles Krauthammer warning conservatives against underestimating President Obama’s political skill and the impact of his policy agenda. 

The social networking site Twitter is often used to share information about new media technologies and last week, the two leading stories fit that pattern.

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The No. 1 link last week (at 15%) was a graphic-based report by the BBC that showed how traffic on popular social networking sites had changed over the past year. Facebook had grown substantially, for example, while MySpace had lost users.

Second, at 10%, was an in-depth report from Wired detailing the troubles Apple has had with its popular iPhone and phone network companies, most specifically AT&T. The previous week, Apple’s problems with the iPhone were the top story on Twitter, with 16% of the links.

The three other leading Twitter subjects from July 19-23 cut across nature, science and politics. The No. 3 topic, at 9%, was about hundreds of dead penguins that washed upon the shore in Brazil to the puzzlement of scientists. Next at 5% was another Wired story about physicists studying the paradoxes involved with time travel. One example: if you went back in time and killed your grandfather, thus preventing your birth, how is it that you exist today?

Fifth, also at 5%, was a BBC story about the domestic criticism British Prime Minister David Cameron received following his erroneous statement that England was the “junior partner” to the U.S. in the Allied fight against Germany in 1940. The U.S. did not join the war until 1941.

Altered BP Photo

On the evening of July 19, John Aravosis of Americablog was the first to report that BP had used an altered photograph on their website of the Houston crisis center at the heart of the oil spill cleanup. Aravosis, in close-up examples on his blog, revealed several places on the photo that had been altered in an amateurish fashion to make blank screens look active. A day later, the Washington Post picked up the story and BP admitted there had been some changes made, although they claimed no intent to deceive. BP also released the original, unedited photo, which showed Aravosis to be correct: there had been three blank screens that were altered to show images.

Some bloggers focused on the role of social media and BP’s relationship to news outlets in general.

“A great example of how a blogger spotted something that traditional media failed to notice,” decided Steve Safran at Lost Remote. “This is actually a fine example of why news organizations should not take photo handouts. You don’t know (unless you’re a hawkeye like this blogger) how the picture has been altered.”

“There has been a growing sense of concern amongst the journalism community since media access to oil spill areas has been extremely limited,” summarized Jessica Lum at PetaPixel. “BP issues press releases and images of cleanup efforts, but this recent discovery is cause for even more concern over misinformation and filtered truth.”

The discovery also provided more fodder for bloggers to criticize a company already reeling from the fallout of the Gulf disaster.

“The joke was that ‘BP’ stood for ‘Broken Pipe’. It nows appears that it stands for ‘Bad Photoshopping,’” wrote Warren Toda. “Every photo released is now suspect. If BP alters pictures, is it also altering the facts in its press releases?”*

“Wouldn’t a more effective PR policy on BP’s part be to actually repair the leaking (oh, sorry, the splurging, gushing) well and then get on with the task of trying to remedy the disaster they’ve created?” wondered Jim Johnson at (Notes on) Politics, Theory & Photography. “Whenever I see this sort of bumbling I think . . . ‘You couldn’t make this stuff up!’”

“What has consistently bothered me about BP’s cleanup and containment efforts is…that they seem to prefer to put on a show, instead of coordinating a response effort that would truly minimize the economic and environmental devastation,” declared Nick Zantop at It’s Just Light.

Weingarten’s Changing Newsroom

Many bloggers who linked to Gene Weingarten’s humorous column bemoaning the loss of some traditional newsroom practices agreed with the main thrust of the piece, especially fellow journalists.

“Gene Weingarten takes the words out of my—and just about every other journalist over 35’—mouth with this column about the sad state of journalism,” applauded Kenneth Walsh.

“The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten is old enough to be my dad…I think. And I mean that as a compliment. But in this column he nails it and expresses everything I feel about journalism since I got into the biz a scant 14 years ago,” agreed James Burnett of the Miami Herald.

Weingarten also sparked a lively conversation among new media types about two specific components of today’s online reporting.

First, many responded to his derision toward “citizen journalists” who write jarring and off-topic comments in response to online news reports. “It’s as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots,” he quipped.

“The vast majority of these comments reflect relatively well-conceived thoughts,” disagreed Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice. “To call them maggots…is over the top…People may lack the degree of thought, nuance, focus and comprehension that one might want to have in a discussion about the issues raised, but interesting ideas still come out.”


Weingarten also lamented the loss of  headlines that allowed for wit and creativity. Online headlines, he concluded, are boring because they are designed primarily for search engine optimization.

“Sadly, Mr. Weingarten, you have unwittingly revealed one of the reasons why traditional publishers are struggling in the internet and search engine age,” criticized Hugo Guzman after making a case that Weingarten’s understanding of online searches was insufficient. “Your refusal or inability to grasp how search engines work…is the reason. It has nothing to do with having to write article titles in a search engine friendly manner.”

“I loved the purity of distilling the story to its essence, with wry wit when possible, and doing so while cracking the crazy calculus of the headline’s space restrictions,” reminisced J. Drew Scott at the Retort. “I can hold hope that their inspiration may draw us back to a time when a headline meant something more than statistic in a marketing report.”


Some of the top YouTube videos chronicled in the New Media Index have clearly been popular because of their basic gawker value, the fact that they are visually compelling often without having any significant news value. For example, the top story the week of November 2-6, 2009, was a brief report about a Russian forklift driver who crashed into shelves. For the week of June 21-25, 2010, the No. 2 story was a Brazilian baby dancing the samba.

The most viewed news video on YouTube last week was another example of that genre.  

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A short report by the television news program Russia Today, featured a leisure company in southern Russia that sent a donkey parasailing in order to promote their business. The donkey, according to the report, was scared during the incident but survived even after landing in the ocean.

The video report received more than 1.3 million views.


 Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube
For the Week of July 17-23, 2010
 1. A news report from Russia Today about a promotional stunt that included a parasailing donkey
 2. A Taiwanese animation that parodies Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs and problems with the iPhone
 3. Video of a UFO seen over China on July 7
 4. A journalist interviews two women on a beach in Italy 

  5. The segment of the NAACP speech given by Shirley Sherrod that caused a significant controversy


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’s New Media Index is 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, uses 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 (25 stories 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. 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 videos 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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