Those of us who follow the Australian media don’t need ATNIX to tell us that it’s been an eventful week, driven towards the end especially by the coverage of Alan Jones’s indefensible comments about the Prime Minister’s late father. But what our Australian Twitter News Index can do is to provide us with quantitative evidence of how that story compares with other recent controversies, and to document which news and opinion Websites have gained the most from covering these events.
Standard background information: this analysis is based on tracking all tweets which contain links pointing to the URLs of a large selection of leading Australian news and opinion sites. For technical reasons, it does not contain ‘button’ retweets, but manual retweets (“RT @user …”) are included. Datasets for those sites which cover more than just news and opinion (abc.net.au, sbs.com.au, ninemsn.com.au) are filtered to exclude irrelevant sections of those sites (e.g. abc.net.au/tv, catchup.ninemsn.com.au). For our analysis of ‘opinion’ link sharing, we include only those sub-sections of mainstream sites which contain opinion and commentary (e.g. abc.net.au/unleashed, articles on theaustralian.com.au which include ‘/opinion’ in the URL), and compare them with dedicated opinion and commentary sites.
ATNIX Week 39: 24-30 Sep. 2012
Given the substantial amount of dismay and anger expressed in response to Jones’s comments – not least on Twitter – and the extensive media debate which followed, the distribution of links to the major news sites this week looks almost unexpectedly normal. The top-ranked sites are in their usual positions, though the ABC is putting in a particularly good showing this week – its 19% share of tweeted links is up from 16% last week. It’s not until place nine that we see any change to the status quo, in fact: here, the Australian Financial Review is in an unusually strong position, with nearly 3,400 tweets referencing its articles; that’s over 50% more links to the site than last week. What is notable overall, though, is a significant increase in the total number of links to Australian news sites which were tweeted this week – with about 125,000 tweets, we’re still a fair way from the levels we recorded earlier in the year, but we’re clearly up from the lacklustre levels of the past fortnight.
As is so often the case, though, it’s the tweeting of links to opinion and commentary sites and sections where the most significant changes are evident. Week 39/2012 marks an all-time record for the Sydney Morning Herald opinion section, which clearly cements its position as the go-to section for political commentary in Australia; a stunning 36% of the 19,000 links to opinion and commentary sites and sections which were tweeted this past week pointed to material on the SMH. For the most part, this result does not reflect a weakening of the other sites, though: The Conversation also increased its total number of incoming links, for example, and the ABC’s The Drum (or the articles at abc.net.au/unleashed) manages to reverse its slow decline, moving back into fifth place from tenth position in week 38. Rather, then, the fact is that the total number of opinion links has increased this week, and the SMH opinion section has captured a disproportionate share of those additional links.
The daily patterns bear this out. For the news sites, we see that the week started out much like previous ones did – but then there’s a sharp spike on Thursday 27 Sep. Notably, all the major news sites shown in the graph below benefit from this increase in activity at least to some extent – but proportional to their long-term prominence as news sources for the Australian Twittersphere, it is the Sydney Morning Herald, ABC News, and The Age which spike most strongly.
But wait: news about Jones’s remarks about the PM’s father broke later in the week – so something else must be driving the Thursday spike. Indeed, it’s Julian Assange, not Alan Jones, who is responsible for the substantial spike in Sydney Morning Herald links: a National Times-cobranded report on declassified US documents which describe Assange as an “enemy of the state” received some 3,000 tweets. Once again, it’s the distribution of a domestic story to a global audience, with the help of the well-organised international network of WikiLeaks supporters, which takes SMH links to a higher plane.
The simultaneous spike in activity around ABC News is less clearly driven by any one story. Three articles relating to the disappearance and murder of Jill Meagher account for some 500 tweets; stories about the mistreatment of sheep exported from Australia to Pakistan, and to the dramatic disappearance of Arctic sea ice, add another 300 tweets. In turn, the sharing of stories on Jill Meagher (650 tweets) and Julian Assange (300 tweets) also explains the spike at The Age. Spikes in the minor Australian news sites are also likely to relate especially to news of an arrest in the Meagher case.
Meanwhile, the Australian Financial Review (not pictured here) follows a different pattern, with spikes on 25 and 27 September. The first of these relates mainly to a (non-paywalled) story about Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who has declared that he likes the NBN so much that he wishes to become an Australian citizen (some 430 tweets that day, with more on following days); the second relates largely to a piece by former Labor leader Mark Latham which criticises The Australian’s double standards as it reports on Gillard and Abbott (some 250 tweets). Small numbers by comparison, perhaps – but significant for a niche publication which normally fails to generate much excitement on Twitter.
But what of Alan Jones, then – did the major controversy over his remarks, which clearly also resulted in a substantial level of debate and anger in Australian social media spaces (witness the successful campaigns on Twitter and Facebook to encourage companies to pull their advertising from Jones’s show), find no echo in the volume of links shared? In short: yes, it did – but less so than the other major stories of the week.
The timing of the Jones controversy must also be considered here. The story broke late on Saturday 29 September – and we already know from our longer-term observations that weekends are traditionally slow days for news sharing on Twitter; we may expect to see more activity on this story in next week’s ATNIX, therefore. The gradual build-up of outrage over Jones’s comments is already evident on the Sunday of week 39, however, and becomes most visible if we single out links to opinion and commentary sites and sections in Australia:
While the Sydney Morning Herald opinion spike on 27 Sep. is entirely the result of the 3,000 tweets to a National Times-cobadged article about Julian Assange (and marks by far the most significant case of a story going viral which we’ve observed since ATNIX started in mid-year), there’s another unusual rise in tweeting activity for the SMH and The Age on the final day of the week.
Of the SMH tweets, some 600 link to a piece by sports columnist Peter FitzSimons which draws the connection between Alan Jones and Tony Abbott, while another 200 share a National Times-cobadged article which reports the details of Jones’s speech. The same articles also account for the lion’s share of links to the opinion section of The Age, but here a third article by political editor Michelle Grattan, suggesting that Jones’s statements are “low-rent comments a decent man would not make”, adds another 70-odd links.
Remember that this is only Sunday, though. As the graph above shows, the spike in opinion links to the SMH that day already surpasses the number of tweets which we’ve recorded for almost any other controversy since ATNIX started, except for global issues such as Assange and WikiLeaks. I’d be willing to bet that the following Monday will see yet greater levels of Twitter activity and outrage surrounding this story – especially as discussion of Jones’s belligerent apology and calls for an advertiser boycott of his show and station build up. But for that, we’ll have to wait another week, until ATNIX 40/2012.