Study: Media Framed Benghazi In Obama’s Terms

November 2, 2012

Press Release
November 2, 2012
Contact: Katy Davis

Democrats’ Depictions of Events Referenced More Than GOP’s Free Speech and Consulate Security Were Leading Issues

Leading newspapers framed the Benghazi attack story in terms of a spontaneous protest (the Obama administration’s version) four times as often as a planned terrorist attack (the Republican version), according to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University and Chapman University. The study also found that the most frequent theme of the coverage concerned hate speech vs. free speech, followed closely by security problems at the consulate.

According to CMPA President Dr Robert Lichter, “This story shows both the extent and the limits of a president’s ability to shape the news of a foreign policy crisis.”

CMPA analyzed news coverage of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya from September 12 to October 12 in five nationally influential newspapers: the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. The study is based on a computer-assisted analysis of 2572 words and phrases related to the attack in 348 news stories. The study’s methodology is described below.

Major Findings:

The Benghazi attack was depicted in terms related to a spontaneous protest (emphasized by the Obama administration) over four times as often as a planned attack (emphasized by Republicans) – 17% vs. 4% of the coverage, respectively.

Terms related to spontaneous protest prevailed over those of a planned attack by margins of almost 7 to 1 (20% v. 3%) in the news pages of the Wall Street Journal, 5 to 1 in the New York Times (16% v. 3%) and Washington Post (20% v. 4%), and about 2 to 1 in the Los Angeles Times (12% v. 5%) and USA Today (13% v. 7%).

The terms mentioned most frequently were related to the theme of hate speech vs. free speech, which accounted for 30% of the coverage, reflecting protests over the film “Innocence of Muslims.”

The second most frequently mentioned theme, with 29% of the coverage, concerned security problems, reflecting debate over security levels and preparations at the Benghazi consulate.

The free speech/hate speech theme was referenced most frequently in the Los Angeles Times (44% of the Times’ coverage), where the video and its producer were something of a home-town story; USA Today (35% of its coverage); and the Wall Street Journal (29% of coverage). The security theme was referenced most heavily in the Washington Post (35% of coverage) and New York Times (30% of coverage).

The Study’s Methods:

Our computer-assisted analysis identified five major themes in the coverage, defined by the words and phrases that appeared with reference to the attack. We identified them as:

1. Hate speech vs. free speech, reflecting debate over the film “Innocence of Muslims,” which set off violent protests in the Middle East – terms like “anti-Islamic;” “deeply offensive,” and “freedom of expression.”

2. Security problems, reflecting debate over security levels and preparations at the Benghazi consulate – phrases like “lax security,” “security lapse,” and “misread warning signs.”

3. Spontaneous attacks, based on (mainly Democratic) characterizations of the attacks as spontaneous and unplanned– terms like “not premeditated,” “opportunism,” and “spontaneous demonstration.”

4. Planned attacks, based on (mainly Republican) characterizations of the attacks as the outcome of a previously planned attack (such as “organized,” “premeditated,” and “well-plotted.”

5. Terrorists, based on words describing individuals involved in terrorist activities- terms like “Al Queda,” “jihadist,” and “Islamist.”

Note: In this study, percentages of the coverage are based on the total number of words and phrases that were related to the Benghazi attack.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, which is affiliated with George Mason University. It has monitored every presidential election and every new administration since 1988 using the same methodology. To find more information on the 2012 election, please visit:

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