Until Sunday, Osama bin Laden had departed the national spotlight, becoming a faded symbol associated with the horrors of September 11, 2001. But on Sunday night, bin Laden was suddenly thrust back into the news, his death a victory that sent Americans cheering into the streets. A look at his place in American media coverage since 2001 gives a sense of how he faded from view, and what Americans might see in the coming days and weeks of news about his demise.
Media analysis shows that attention to bin Laden has waned in recent years. Data from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism shows firstly that bin Laden has recently committed few newsworthy acts, but also suggests that the media paid diminishing attention to bin Laden's threats. Of over 70,000 stories from dozens of mainstream newspapers, radio programs, websites, and television news programs that Pew studied in 2007, the first year for which they have data, 112 featured the al Qaeda founder as a lead newsmaker, meaning that he was mentioned in at least 50 percent of the paragraphs in each of those stories. By comparison, former Sen. Larry Craig was the lead newsmaker of 333 stories in that year, when he was arrested for "lewd conduct" in an airport bathroom. Bin Laden's prominence dropped even further thereafter, and in 2010, bin Laden merited only 33 stories out of nearly 68,000. That same year, he was beat out for coverage in the mainstream media by a range of personalities, including Kate Middleton (lead newsmaker in 85 stories), potential 2012 presidential candidate Donald Trump (83 stories), Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann (74 stories), and actress Lindsay Lohan (53 stories). By comparison, that year's top two newsmakers were President Obama and his administration, with 5,267 stories, and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, with 411 stories. This drop in coverage occurred despite the fact that bin Laden continued to regularly issue threats, with more than a dozen threatening audio and video tapes purportedly featuring the leader released from 2007 to 2010.
All this shows how bin Laden's presence on the global stage dwindled considerably after September 11, and how other figures deemed more newsworthy filled his place in the news narrative. According to Jane Hall, a professor and media expert at the American University School of Communication, bin Laden has received less coverage over the years in part because his perceived place in the splintered, decentralized al Qaeda also diminished over time. Hall points out that other prominent but ostensibly less powerful al Qaeda operatives have recently received far more attention than bin Laden. For example, Pew data shows that 107 news stories analyzed in 2010 prominently featured Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to bomb a passenger jet in December 2009, compared to bin Laden's 33.
Hall also posits that the feedback loop between the president and the press allowed bin Laden's prominence to recede. "I think that as time went on, and the U.S. did not get him, people [in the media] began to ask the question less," she says, adding that for President Obama, avoiding the topic was a smart move: "once we didn't get [bin Laden] right away, it's much better to not be being asked the question."
The recent uprisings in the Arab world may have further marginalized bin Laden in a less quantifiable way, according to Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt...the idea that these populaces could effect change themselves, without the jihad that he was preaching, may have frankly in many ways made him and his movement less relevant," he says.
Yet both Jurkowitz and Hall agree that the media frenzy over his slaying is perfectly understandable. "The idea of what he represents, the memories of the attacks, frankly are still fresh in people's minds," says Jurkowitz.