Two topics-interrogation techniques and same-sex marriage led the conversation in blogs and social media last week. And while the catalysts that triggered those debates were fresh developments, it was clear that both subjects are familiar ones in the blogosphere.

First, the Obama administration’s April 16 release of memos detailing harsh interrogation techniques of terror suspects drove the dominant online conversation last week. More than a third (36%) of the links by blogs and social media sites from April 20-24 focused on the controversy, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. This marked the second time in less than a month that the question of torture was among the largest topics in the index.

The No. 2 story (another 16% of the links) centered on a subject that surfaced because of an answer by a Miss USA pageant contestant. In response to a judge’s question during the April 19 contest, Miss California stated her opposition to same-sex marriage. That turned out to trigger a heated response in the blogosphere that was not entirely new. Two weeks earlier, the issue of gay marriage was the top subject among social media.

While both top stories stirred passions, the pattern of responses in social media was very different between the issues. The interrogation memos generated a polarizing debate over the nation’s war on terror that included a broad crosscurrent of viewpoints. The conversation about same-sex marriage, which focused almost exclusively on Miss California, produced mostly a large swath of support among the bloggers.

Meanwhile, the third largest story (at 12%) was the death of author JG Ballard. A science fiction writer, Ballard was best known for his books Crash and Empire of the Sun. He died at the age of 78 after a long illness.

Generating substantially less notice, the fourth-largest linked-to article last week (at 6%) was a pictorial that appeared on the Boston Globe Web site of photos from NASA’s spacecraft Cassini which delivered remarkable images of planets and moons throughout the solar system. This is the second time in a month that a Globe pictorial has been one of the top stories in the blogosphere. During the week of March 30-April 3, pictures of cities around the world participating in Earth Hour were the fourth largest topic. 

And close behind that, the fifth largest subject, at 4%, was the Web communication tool Twitter, with two stories grabbing the blogosphere’s attention. The first was an April 23 report on about a doctoral student in biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who had invented a way to post a message on Twitter by using brain impulses. The other was an April 21 tongue-in-cheek interview  by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd with the founders of Twitter. Dowd concluded that the founders were not nearly as annoying as their invention.

Almost all of these stories, with the exception of interrogation memos, represented a substantially different roster of subjects than led mainstream media last week. The U.S. campaign against terrorism, fueled by the interrogation memos, was also the No. 1 story in the mainstream press of 54 different outlets PEJ examined from April 20-26. There, the subject accounted for 21% of the newshole, that is space in print and online and time on television and radio.

The next four stories in the traditional media, however, were quite different from the top subjects in social media. The economic crisis was No. 2 (at 18% of the newshole) followed by the "Craiglist killer," a 23-year-old medical student accused of killing a woman he met through the classified ad Web site (5%). Next came coverage of the Obama administration as he approached his 100-days milestone (5%). And No. 5 was the troubled auto industry, a story led by news that General Motors was closing plants over the summer to save money (4%).

These are some of the findings of the PEJ’s New Media Index for the week of April 20-24. The index is an effort to monitor the content appearing in new media platforms. The biggest element of this Index is what appears in the more than 100 million blogs and other social media web pages concerned with national news and public affairs tracked by two monitoring sites, Technorati and Icerocket. Both track the commentary online by identifying what news stories bloggers and other websites link to. Each weekday, PEJ captures the top linked-to stories and analyzes their content. It then compares those findings with the results of its weekly analysis of more mainstream media, the weekly News Coverage Index. The Project also tracks the most popular news videos on YouTube each week.


On April 19, the New York Times reported that two terror suspects had been subjected to waterboarding by U.S. intelligence agents 266 times, far more than had been previously detailed. That report, along with Obama’s release of memos written for the Bush administration detailing legal justifications for the use of harsh interrogation techniques brought the issue into the forefront of the online conversation last week.

Not only did the dialogue break down along ideological lines, both sides seemed to talk past each other citing different information and raising different ethical questions.

"Torturing prisoners does not send the right message to the rest of the world," declared Brad at "Waterboarding is inhumane, immoral, and illegal so, by Bush and Rumsfeld’s own standards for treatment of American prisoners of war, they and everyone in the Bush Administration that justified the use of torture should be treated as war criminals."

After citing a report that one suspect, Abu Zabaydah, was waterboarded at least 83 times, tristero at Hullabaloo added, "Indeed, eighty-three waterboadings is beyond the pale, but… so is one. Waterboarding is torture, period…. The men and women who justified and authorized and who ordered torture simply must stand trial for their crimes."

Some liberals wondered why Obama was reluctant to pursue legal action against those who conducted the waterboarding.

"Was it for information or revenge that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who claimed to be the mastermind behind 9/11, was waterboarded 183 times by the CIA?" asked Truthdig. "That figure…makes the president’s determination not to prosecute such torture all the more curious."

Conservatives were angry that Obama had decided to make the memos public and pointed to an April 21 Washington Post column by former Bush speechwriter Marc A. Thiessen that claimed the tactics provided valuable intelligence.

"Why must the political left work so hard to undermine the efforts of those who sacrifice everything to keep us safe?" asked Jeff Schreiber at America’s Right. "Why does this administration place the well-being of people who want, with every fiber of their being, to kill innocent American men, women and children ahead of the safety of those people they are sworn to protect?…This is insane."

"I defy anyone to justify the morality of allowing mass murder of innocent Americans by our enemies in wartime, all in the guise of a holier-than-thou feigned ‘horror’ about actually allowing the murderers themselves to be made the least bit ‘uncomfortable’ or deprived of a little sleep…" posted DiscerningTexan at The Astute Blogger.

The morality of torture was not the only point of disagreement. Commentators also disputed the efficacy of the techniques.

On the liberal blog Thinkprogress Ken Gude disagreed with the claim that these methods helped prevent a large-scale attack in 2006 on the Liberty Tower in Los Angeles. "This is exactly the kind of garbage you get from torture when the detainee will grasp for whatever he thinks his captors want to hear," he wrote.

"I happen to believe that waterboarding is, in fact, torture," conceded the conservative blog Patterico’s Pontifications. "But on a day when President Obama has announced that he has not ruled out prosecuting people who approved waterboarding and other enhanced techniques, it seems to me important to remember that, from what we know, they worked."

Miss California and Same-sex Marriage

When Miss California, Carrie Prejean, entered the Miss USA pageant, she likely had no idea she would become a major figure in the debate on same-sex marriage or a new if controversial political celebrity.

Two weeks ago, the reaction among bloggers examined in this Index was near unanimous support for decisions in Iowa, Vermont, and Washington, D.C. to recognize same-sex marriages. Last week, however, Preajean’s opposition to same-sex marriage in response to a question from pageant judge and celebrity blogger Perez Hilton brought plaudits from those who said she was standing up for her beliefs.

"I have been more and more impressed with this lady," applauded There’s My Two Cents. "Carrie Prejean, Miss California and runner-up Miss America 2009, shows us how it’s done when the Left tries to smear you."

"I guess what I really a happy about is that Carrie that she had enough courage to stand up for what she believes in," wrote Chris and Karen at The Scott’s. "She knew when she answered the question she knew she lost. To me it is refreshing that there are others out there who are willing to stand up for their beliefs regardless of the outcome."*

"I can’t see what all the fuss is about," added Tom at the Redhunter. "Her answer was polite and non-confrontational. She did not denigrate or insult anyone."

While Prejean enjoyed a lot of support among bloggers, there were those who ridiculed the notion that this event had been a test of her religious faith, as she claimed.

"Being asked about gay marriage by Perez Hilton, a judge of the contest you apparently signed up to try to win, was God’s test?" wondered Functionally ReTodded. "Don’t you think maybe God was testing your faith when you looked in a mirror and decided that having people judge you on your appearance in a bikini while standing on a stage in front of a thousand people was the best way to spread the gospel and his message?"

Top YouTube Videos

The PEJ New Media Index also tracks the most popular news videos on YouTube each week. 

While the most viewed news video last week involved the same-sex marriage comments during the Miss USA pageant, two of the top five most viewed videos demonstrated the power of viral information for an unlikely new star-a decidedly unglamorous middle-aged amateur Scottish singer named Susan Boyle. Boyle’s unexpected performance on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent was seen by millions of Internet users all over the world.

The second and third most popular videos last week were reports involving Boyle-an ITN story on Boyle’s new-found popularity and her interview CNN’s Larry King.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

April 18 – 24, 2009

1. Perez Hilton reacts to Miss California’s comments on same-sex marriage during an interview on MSNBC

2. ITN report about Scottish singing sensation Susan Boyle including an interview with judge Amanda Holden

3. Interview with Susan Boyle by CNN’s Larry King

4. Western diplomats walk out during a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a UN anti-racism summit

5. CNN report from the April 15 Tea Party protests along with extra footage of the CNN reporter talking with protesters off air



About the New Media Index

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.

While the News Coverage Index is comprised of primarily U.S.-based media outlets, the aggregators of blogs and other social media include both U.S. and non-U.S. blogs. In addition, stories that are linked to can be from non-U.S. sources. However, according to PEJ’s research over the last four months, the only non-U.S. news stories included in the top lists for Technorati and Icerocket have been the BBC (whose Web site is part of the News Coverage Index) and the Guardian.

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. text