How the Media Have Covered bin Laden's Death So Far

In the first three days since the death of Osama bin Laden, 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.

Instead, the discussion across a broad range of mainstream media, on Facebook, Twitter and in the blogosphere, has centered on trying to sort out what happened and on people's feelings about it -- including significant debate in social media over whether the reports might be a hoax. But so far the coverage has defied the tendency seen in many major national news events to turn quickly partisan.

In the mainstream press, coverage has focused on trying to parse out the details leading up to and during the dramatic raid, and on sorting through the national and international reaction to it. Those two themes together accounted for half the bin Laden coverage since Sunday night, May 1, and through Wednesday, May 4.

On Facebook and Twitter, meanwhile, citizens have used these social media tools to express black humor about bin Laden's death. The largest share of discussion there, 19%, has involved people sharing jokes. The second largest theme involved the question of whether bin Laden was really dead, and weighing the pros and cons of the proof offered. That discussion accounted for 17% of the conversation.

And in the blogosphere, which often takes a contrarian view to that offered in the mainstream media, the largest share of the discussion (14%) involved passing along news about the raid. Almost as much (13%) concerned fears about possible reprisals for bin Laden's death. And a notable amount of the discussion, 10%, involved the hoax theme.

In the political discussion that did occur, bloggers were evenly divided over whether President Obama deserved more credit or whether the policies of President Bush did. On Facebook and Twitter, conversation crediting Obama is twice that praising Bush.

These are some of the findings of a special report on media attention to bin Laden's death produced by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. The report used computer technology by Crimson Hexagon that examined more than 120,000 news stories, 100,000 blog posts, and 6.9 million posts on Twitter or Facebook from May 1 through May 4.

There is no doubt the bin Laden story is huge. The early wall-to-wall coverage of the bin Laden story accounted for an extraordinary 89% of the mainstream media newshole on May 2 and May 3, as measured by PEJ's ongoing News Coverage Index. At this pace, bin Laden's death would easily be the biggest weekly story since the NCI began in January 2007.

In an age when the media dialogue is thought to move at lightning speed, however, what may be most striking is how little the coverage and discussion on this topic have shifted since the event occurred Sunday, May 1. Humor, which was a strong initial response, has dropped off some in social media, but it still remains one of the most prevalent themes on Facebook and Twitter. Otherwise, the discussion over the first few days has remained fundamentally unchanged, deepening rather than quickly moving on to new dimensions of story in the way that we typically see, sometimes before the facts are fully reported. The calculus over who will benefit politically, for instance, has not shifted substantially. Similarly, the suspicions that bin Laden's death was a hoax have not changed appreciably.