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Syria vs. Cyrus Redux

- September 12, 2013

Readers of the blog may remember that last week as part of a Twitter discussion with Larry Sabato on how much American public opinion on Syria really mattered, I decided to look at some Google Trends data comparing searches for Syria and Miley Cyrus.  I took a bit of pounding from our readers on the use of Google Trends data to do this, but it turns out that I wasn’t the only one who had the idea to compare the two. Political scientists  and  writing in the Huffington Post compared media coverage of the two and Google Trends data. Their findings:

The odd coupling of these two sensational stories presents a relatively rare, real-time opportunity to assess two popular and closely related conventional wisdoms about the American media and public. The first holds that in their media consumption, Americans prefer entertainment over public policy; sensationalism over substance; and sex over, well, just about anything. The second holds that in order to attract consumers, market-driven media routinely under-report or ignore important issues of public policy — abdicating their responsibility to serve as a watchdog of government — in favor of serving up the steady diet of cotton candy that they believe the public wants. As it turns out, reality is less clear-cut than conventional wisdom. According to Google News, in the week starting August 25 the Syria-to-Cyrus ratio — the number of print and online stories about Syria relative to those about Miley Cyrus — was about 5.5 to 1. That is, there was about 5.5 times more coverage of Syria than of Cyrus. According to LexisNexis, TV news — specifically, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC — had a somewhat lower Syria-to-Cyrus ratio of about 3 to 1 (351 vs. 112 stories), while major newspapers — New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post — had a much higher ratio of about 11 to 1 (252 vs. 23 stories). These outlets varied widely in their coverage, and there clearly was no shortage of news about Cyrus’s derriere. Yet, on balance, news coverage focused far more on what people arguablyneeded to know than on what — per conventional wisdom — they wanted to know.


Even with the predominance of media coverage about Syria over Cyrus last week, the Syria-to-Cyrus ratio for Americans’ Google searches was almost the inverse of the Google News ratio: about 1 to 6, or six times more searches for news about Miley Cyrus than about Syria. Score one for the conventional wisdom.

Yet public opinion data suggests that perhaps there were fewer searches for Syria because there was already a lot known about Syria:

A recent NBC News poll (8/28-8/29) shows almost 80% of the public saying that it has heard “some” or “a lot” of news about Syria’s supposed chemical weapons use. While self-reports can be somewhat inflated, the near-80% figure is the fourth highest out of 16 high-profile issues for which NBC has asked the identical question over the past two years.

If that’s not enough for you, Jake Leavy at Buzzfeed put together a whole spread of graphics comparing the two using Facebook’s New Keyword’s Insights API. I would gladly have analyzed some of this data myself – providing Facebook much needed added publicity – but alas, for now the tool is only being rolled out to selected media partners at the moment (hint, hint…).