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May 28, 2003

Titrating the Media

A visit to Somewhere in the Digital Forest yesterday raised a question in my mind. I was under the general impression that there had been more stories on Iran than North Korea lately, something that would be expected if one thinks that the Bush administration would prepare the way for an attack on Iran by salting the media with stories about the Iranian nuclear program, its harboring of terrorists, or the oppression of the Iranian people by fundamentalist mullahs.

And I was right. A quick search on Google News gave me the following totals;

Iran 10,000 stories found
Syria 8,500 stories found
North Korea 8,370 stories found

Today there are fewer stories, perhaps because of the time of search, but the order remains the same.

Iran 8,910 stories found
Syria 8,130 stories found
North Korea 6,640 stories found

I'm not the only person who thinks this, though the idea is less bothersome to me than to others. I can't say I care for the company, but the BBC World Service also subscribes to the theory. There's no transcript available, but the NPR broadcast of that program this morning included an interview where the similarities in news stories dealing with Iraq prior to the war and those dealing with Iran now were discussed. The reporter took an "of course the administration is manipulating the coverage" attitude. There was not discussion of the actual factual content or lack thereof in the Iranian coverage, just a dismissal of it as impure. To the BBC, how a story comes about is enough to trump what a story is about.

Perhaps it's because I grew up in an environment where every two-bit business in the country blast faxes a press release each time they reformulate a product or promote a marketing assistant, but the idea that the administration tries to manipulate press coverage is somewhat less than shocking.

Now, if the current media focus on Iran actually is similar to the pre-war Iraqi coverage, then two things should occur. Not only will the Iranian percentage of stories involving the three countries above continue to grow, but the number of stories on Iran as a whole should also grow. There might even be a predictable tipping point, something along the lines of "Once Google reaches 55,000 stories a day on Iran, war is just around the corner."

Not that I have any idea what that number would be. The 55K is just an example. I'm also not sure if the time of day the Google search is run has any effect on the results. I ran yesterday's search around 4:00 PM EST. Obviously the one today was earlier than that. < technical > I would set it up as a cron job, but the Google API doesn't include Google News yet. Anyone have an idea how to do this? I'll also have to figure out how to publish graphs to the net, but that shouldn't be as difficult. < technical >

And it wasn't, though the process is a bit inelegant

I'll try to remember to re-run the queries at 4.

I'm thinking there may be more info available in Google news story counts than one might expect. For one, since Google re-caches every 5 minutes or so, one could trace the evolution of a story over time, eventually comparing stories with "legs" to each other in an attempt to discover what they might have in common. If that's possible, then it may be possible to tailor one's message so that it has more or less of those particular qualities, depending on whether one wants a story to stick around for a while, or to vanish. In which case media manipulation is in its infancy.

Update: Re-ran the queries; story numbers actually declined a bit from this morning, except for the NorKs, but until I'm convinced that the time the search is run does not matter, the 4 o'clock numbers will be the ones represented on the graph.

Iran 8,470 stories found
Syria 8,080 stories found
North Korea 6,650 stories found

Posted by Bigwig at May 28, 2003 01:02 PM | TrackBack
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