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A Special Report on the Media and the Tucson Shooting

PEJ News Coverage Index January 10-16, 2011

The aftermath of the January 8 shooting spree in Tucson dominated the American news media last week in a way events rarely do: the tragedy registered as the third-biggest story in a single week since PEJ began tracking coverage in January 2007.

From January10-16, the rampage that killed six and badly wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords accounted for 57% of the news coverage studied by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. In the past four years, only two stories—both about the 2008 election—generated more attention. The first was the nomination of Barack Obama and John McCain’s surprise selection of running mate Sarah Palin (69% from August 25-September 1). The second was the following week, September 1-7, when the Republicans held their national convention (58%).

Aside from the sheer volume of media attention, what have the traumatic events in Tucson meant, as transmitted in the media narrative? This special report, combining PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index with social media analysis technology from Crimson Hexagon, finds several key elements emerging.

The Argument over Political Rhetoric was the No. 1 Storyline in the Tucson Coverage.

The single biggest shooting-related topic involved a discussion of the tenor of political discourse in America, including its role as a potential catalyst for the tragedy. That theme proved to be the biggest component of the coverage both in mainstream and social media alike.

According to the PEJ’s News Coverage Index, which focuses on the mainstream press, the often-heated debate about public discourse accounted for more than a quarter (27%) of all coverage devoted to the shootings last week. That was more than the coverage about the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner and his family (20%), the No. 2 Tucson storyline. And it more than doubled the coverage devoted to the third-biggest narrative, straight news accounts of the shooting and its aftermath, at 12%.

Nowhere in the mainstream media did that debate echo more loudly than on the ideological talk shows on radio and cable news. On radio, which includes commercial talk hosts, headlines and NPR, it filled 57% of the airtime devoted to the shooting. On cable, which includes prime-time and some daytime programming, it filled 32%.

Some conservative hosts accused the left of trying to smear the right by suggesting that heated political rhetoric was somehow responsible for the violence in Tucson.

As early as Monday January 10, on his prime-time Fox News show, conservative host Bill O’Reilly said, “Only moments…after Congresswoman Giffords was shot, some far-left loons began to spew their hatred: Conservatives encouraged Jared Loughner to pull the trigger. Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Fox News, all spurred the psychopath to kill the six people. The merchants of hate who are peddling this stuff should be accountable.”


[the rhetoric]

The topic of political discourse was less prominent elsewhere in the media. It accounted for 21% of the online news studied concerning the shooting. And it filled 18% of the front-page newspaper coverage devoted to the shooting and 18% in network morning and evening news on the story.

But the tone of public discourse was a more significant focus of the discussion in new media. According to a Crimson Hexagon analysis that began two days earlier than the NCI data (on January 8), 29% of the conversation about the Giffords story measured on blogs and Twitter focused on public discourse. Crimson Hexagon technology analyzes online media by identifying statistical patterns in the words used to express opinions on different topics.

Using Crimson Hexagon, PEJ was also able to analyze the tone of this conversation. Here, considerably more of the discussion about political rhetoric featured the left blaming the right rather than the other way around. According to the analysis from January 8-16, a full 59% of the commentary in blogs, Twitter and social media involved liberals blaming conservatives for their tone. That was more than twice the amount of the discussion—28%—that involved conservatives criticizing the left or defending themselves.

Typical of that commentary was a tweet by someone calling himself David D: “Funny, how Billy Oreillys of the world want rappers to watch their words but wanna give themselves & Sarah palin a pass.”  Another tweeter, RVAREgal wrote, “Things that make me rethink free speech—Palin, Limbaugh, Robertson, Beck, et al.”

Though smaller in number, some conservatives did fire back. “Sorry, but can’t let Left MSM lie, smear, frame the debate, set their memes unopposed,” tweeted Barbara McMahon.

In social media, the subject of public debate was followed closely by a discussion of the shooting incident itself, the aftermath, and the media’s coverage of it. That filled 27% of the social media conversation. The No. 3 topic in social media was Obama’s response to the incident, including his January 12 speech and the memorial service to the victims (22%).

Obama’s Speech Helped Cool the Debate over Angry Words—to a Degree.

In a January 12 speech witnessed by an estimated 30 million Americans, Barack Obama called for a change in the tone of political debate, asking citizens “to listen to each other more carefully” and “to sharpen our instincts for empathy.”

The speech, and the reaction to it, proved to be significant newsmakers. In the mainstream press, that accounted for 9% of the coverage devoted to the shooting story for the week, making it the No. 4 storyline. It was a bigger story in social media, where the president’s role, his speech and the memorial service accounted for 22% of the conversation.

The address generated largely positive reviews from media pundits on the left, and perhaps more notably, from the right as well. On Fox News, columnist Charles Krauthammer showered the speech with praise, calling elements of it “inspirational.” Writing for the National Review online, Jim Geraghty called it a “terrific speech.”  Even Fox News and radio talk host Glen Beck declared that Obama gave “a tremendous speech.”

It will take time to determine whether the president succeeding in helping douse the heated rhetoric and fiery partisanship in Washington. At least some observers thought it had brought a temporary halt to hostilities. “I think it does end the episode we’ve had for the last three or four days of this rancorous, and I think, malicious debate,” ventured Krauthammer. That may have been a little optimistic.

In the mainstream media, Obama’s speech halted the focus on the nature of political discourse for just one day. The day following his speech, the issue of rhetoric dropped to 11% of the Tucson coverage, while attention to his speech accounted for 31%. But by the next day, January 14, the public discourse discussion had once again emerged as the top storyline (21%) while coverage of Obama’s speech plunged to 3% of the newshole.

But reaction to the memorial service and president’s appeal did seem to have more staying power in social media. It filled 32% of the social media conversation the day after he spoke and between 24% and 27% for the rest of the week. That was enough to push the focus on political rhetoric down from as high as 39% earlier in the week to between 24% and 28% the rest of the week.

A Tough Week for Sarah Palin in both Social and Mainstream Media

Almost as soon as news of the January 8 shooting surfaced, former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was drawn into the narrative. At first, that was largely by critics who blamed her—and her now famous map with its crosshairs imposed over Giffords’ district—as contributing factors to the violence.

Palin entered the story more actively on January 12, the morning of the President’s speech, when she released a video that accused her critics of a “blood libel,” a controversial term that invoked the anti-Semitic charge that Jews used the blood of Christian children as part of religious practice.

For the week, Palin was the fifth biggest mainstream newsmaker in the shooting coverage, registering as a dominant newsmaker in 4% of all the stories on that subject. She trailed only Loughner (25%), Giffords (19%), Obama (12%) and Christina Taylor Green, the nine-year old girl killed in the attack (5%).  (To register as a dominant newsmaker, someone must be featured in at least 50% of a story.)

And in both the mainstream media and the online conversation, much of Palin’s coverage was unflattering. The Crimson Hexagon analysis shows that from January 8-16, bloggers and Twitter users were considerably more critical than supportive of her—by almost a 3-1 margin.

Indeed, 58% of the social media commentary that involved Palin was negative, compared with 21% positive and 21% neutral. And a substantial portion of that was fueled by the response to her “blood libel” video.

[blood libel.]

“Of course Palin is going to say something ridiculously offense like ‘blood libel’—this is how she stays rich and famous,” tweeted Maia Appleby.

In the mainstream press, a media narrative that was generally sympathetic to Palin’s view that she had been unfairly blamed for the Tucson violence seemed to change after the video’s release.

The non-partisan website Politico, which relentlessly tracks winners and losers in the political wars, declared that the video demonstrated Palin “has little interest—or capacity—in moving beyond her brand of grievance-based politics.” And conservative columnist Ross Douthat warned Palin that, “You were an actual politician once (remember that?), but you’re becoming the kind of caricature that your enemies have always tried to make of you.”

The Gun Control Debate Gets Little Traction

Amid the many storylines that emerged in the past week, one was notable mostly for its absence. While some lawmakers talked about new legislation, the issue of gun control generated only modest coverage.

In the mainstream press, the gun control storyline accounted for only 5% of all the Tucson coverage studied from January 10-16—garnering about one-fifth the attention the political rhetoric issue generated. In the online media analysis, the numbers were strikingly similar. Only 4% of the conversation about the shootings on Twitter and blogs was related to gun control.

A day-by-day breakdown of both social and traditional media coverage reveals that the gun control debate never had a real spike, never exceeding 7% of the shootings newshole on any given day.

One reason may be the sense that political positions on gun control are set and there seemed little prospect of that changing because of Tucson. A January 14 story in the Connecticut newspaper, the Hour, reported on Congressman Jim Himes’ concerns that “the topic has become very political with one extreme wishing to ban guns entirely and the other extreme labeling any measures to restrict gun ownership a ‘slippery slope’ toward eliminating Americans’ Constitutional rights.”

And last weekend on “Meet the Press” Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said: “Let’s be honest here. There haven’t been the votes in the Congress for gun control. We have had some victories … But make no mistake about it: The changes are hard.”

The Rest of the Week’s News

No other story in the mainstream media came remotely close to matching the level of coverage devoted to the Arizona shootings last week. And much of the rest of the news agenda was devoted to natural disasters and dangerous weather.

The No. 2 story, at 5% of the newshole, was the winter storm that blasted through the South and Northeast. It was followed closely by coverage of the economy, which dipped last week to 5% from 10% the previous week. The No. 4 story was the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, (4%), which hit the one-year anniversary mark last week. And the fifth-biggest story was about another natural disaster, the Australia flooding, at 3% of the newshole.

About this report

PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 52 different outlets from five sectors of the media: print, online, network TV, cable and radio. (See List of Outlets.) The weekly study, which includes some 1,000 stories, is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of that media narrative and differences among news platforms. The percentages are based on “newshole,” or the space devoted to each subject in print and online and time on radio and TV. (See Our Methodology.) In addition, these reports also include a rundown of the week’s leading newsmakers, a designation given to people who account for at least 50% of a given story.

For the study of Blogs and Twitter PEJ used software provided by Crimson Hexagon. Crimson Hexagon’s software analyzes the conversation online from blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Forums and mainstream news sources.  According to Crimson Hexagon: “Our technology analyzes the entire social internet (blog posts, forum messages, Tweets, etc.) by identifying statistical patterns in the words used to express opinions on different topics.”

Information on the tool itself can be found at and the in depth methodologies can be found here The time frame for the analysis is January 8 to 16, 2011.  For the analysis of both blogs and Twitter PEJ first had to narrow the universe to relevant posts and used the following list of keywords in a Boolean search:

Giffords OR Loughner OR (Arizona AND shot) OR (Arizona AND shooting) OR (AZ AND shot) OR (AZ AND shooting) OR (Arizona AND death) OR (Arizona AND dead) OR (AZ AND death) OR (AZ AND dead) OR Tucson OR assassinate OR gunman OR (Christina AND Green) OR Gabby OR (Judge AND Roll) OR Dupnik OR vitriol OR (hate AND speech) OR Palin OR libel OR thrive OR memorial OR Obama

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

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