Skip to main content

PEJ: Bin Laden Coverage Avoids Political Handicapping

The initial coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden has bucked the trend of big story coverage to turn partisan.

That is according to a Project for Excellence in Journalism study of how the media have covered his killing by Navy Seals in a daring May 1 assault.

The story took up a whopping 89% of the news hole on mainstream media May 2 and 3, according to PEJ's News Coverage Index, which puts it on pace to be the biggest weekly story since the index was launched in January 2007.

"In the first three days since the death of Osama bin Laden," said PEJ, "the attention given to the event in both traditional and new media has been only nominally focused on the political ramifications of the terrorist's death....

"[F]or a mainstream media culture that reflexively seeks out conflict, the coverage so far has projected a greater sense of national unity and that has persisted through the week," said the report.

That was also reflected in the general bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill for the president's decision to put "boots on the ground" rather than an airstrike.

The study found that, instead, the stories have tended to focus on just what happened -- the administration has been light on details, photos or other evidence, citing concerns about compromising the next such mission or inflaming the Arab world with photos of bin Laden's corpse--he was shot in the head. But the stories have also been about the debate over whether the reports of his death could be a hoax, which photos or video might help dispel, though as General Colin Powell pointed out last, week, that would not assuage the conspiracy theorists in the age of Photoshop.

PEJ says the mainstream media coverage focused on trying to "parse out the details" of what happened and "sorting through" reaction to it. Stories on those two themes accounted for half the coverage from Sunday night through May 4.

On Facebook and Twitter, the biggest topic of discussion about the killing was black humor (though Jimmy Kimmel has provided some of that himself with his Rebecca Black "It's Friday" and "Weekend at bin Laden" parodies.

According to PEJ, 19% of that discussion of bin Laden on Facebook and Twitter involved jokes, with the second biggest theme (17%) whether he was really dead and weighing the pros and cons of the U.S. supplying proof.

In the blogosphere, the biggest percentage of discussion was actually relaying news about the raid (14%), with 13% concerned about reprisals, and 10% about whether it was a hoax.

The PEJ report was based on computer examination of more than 120,000 news stories, 100,000 blog posts, and 6.9 million posts on Twitter or Facebook May 1-4.