The Arizona Shooting: Now With 12% Real News!

Pew study shows us what we already know: people were way more into the political discussion and the shooter’s background than what actually happened

Last Updated: January 25, 2011 @ 11:25 AM

Sick of hearing about alleged Tucson shooter Jared Lee Loughner and his G-string underwear?

New research from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that what you should be sick of hearing about is the role political rhetoric played in the Jan. 8 attack that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in critical condition after she was shot in the head at point-blank range.

When news of the shooting broke, people on the right and the left began pointing fingers at each other as the side (or the person in the case of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, this list goes on) responsible.

Some blamed both sides, saying politics had simply gotten too vicious.

According to the report, which looked at both mainstream and social media, "the often-heated debate about public discourse accounted for more than a quarter (27 percent) 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 percent), 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 percent."

The topic of gun control came in at a low 5 percent of the shooting coverage.

The analysis spanned 52 news outlets from the print, online, network TV, cable and radio worlds.

The list of outlets includes the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Arizona Republic, Yahoo News, Fox News, "Good Morning America," "CBS Evening News," "Parker Spitzer," "O'Reilly Factor," NPR and Rush Limbaugh. PEJ also looked at blogs and Facebook and Twitter for the top themes in online conversations.

The data reveals that TV and radio talking heads were the most fond of debating the politics behind Loughner's shooting spree — 57 percent of the shooting's radio airtime and 32 percent of the shooting's TV coverage focused on this angle.

"The topic of political discourse was less prominent elsewhere in the media," the report said. "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."

Jeremy W. Peters and Brian Stelter of the New York Times took a closer look at where the blame game got its origins.

"While there was plenty of debate in newspapers, and on radio and television about the effects of a toxic political environment, most of the direct accusations against conservative talk radio and pundits were leveled by people online, not members of the mainstream media," they wrote.

One of the people who politicized the event early on was the Daily Kos' Markos Moulitsas, who tweeted “Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin” and linked to Palin's district target map.
Others, like Fox Nation's Bill O'Reilly, called out members of the mainstream media for being the "merchants of hate who are peddling" the back-and-forth between "political zealots."

In “Time, the Enemy,” the New York Times' public editor, Arthur Brisbane, analyzed the Times' coverage.

"The Tucson shootings afforded another, quite different illustration of the pressure of time in news coverage — not pressure measured in seconds and minutes, but pressure that news organizations feel to define the context of a story, to set up a frame for it, sometimes before the facts can be fully understood," he wrote.

"The Times’s day-one coverage in some of its Sunday print editions included a strong focus on the political climate in Arizona and the nation. For some readers — and I share this view to an extent — placing the violence in the broader political context was problematic."

Though much media attention has been focused on Loughner's possible political motives, affiliations and idols, the Upshot's Michael Calderone notes, "[He] doesn't seem to have been interested in the fiery political debates that dominate cable news and talk radio, according to the recollections of friends."

In other words, this isn't what he expected us to talk about?

The coverage break down, per the PEJ research:

1.    Role of Political Rhetoric (27%)
2.    Profile of Shooter (20%)
3.    Straight News Account (12%)
4.    Obama's Tucson Speech (9%)
5.    Mourning/Vigils (8%)
6.    Profile of Giffords (8%)
7.    Gun Control (5%)

Callie Schweitzer is the editor-in-chief of Neon Tommy, an L.A.-based news site, and is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism at the USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She's also a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in The New York Times and People magazine.