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Syria vs. Cyrus

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In the wake of last week's Video Music Awards (VMAs), Alan Thicke, whose son Robin performed opposite Miley Cyrus, tweeted: "The firestorm rages on. VMA now stands for 'View Miley's Ass.' BTW, they're killing people with chemical weapons in Syria." The fallout from Cyrus's controversial performance immediately thrust her into the national spotlight. But is Alan Thicke's implicit critique apt? Did the media get carried away analyzing Cyrus's wardrobe choices? Did coverage of "Twerkgate," as the story became known, crowd out the first large-scale use of a weapon of mass destruction in over a quarter century, and along with it the debate over whether and how the United States should respond?

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.

So, at least in this case, and contrary to the first conventional wisdom, the press appears not to have abdicated its watchdog role. But what of the second conventional wisdom? Media attention can, and in this case apparently did, lead the public to the water of meaningful policy considerations. But could it make them drink?

According to the Google Trends index, which archives people's Google searches, the answer appears to be... not so much. 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.

Well, maybe not entirely. 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. This suggests that many Americans have indeed been drinking, at least enough to wash down the cotton candy.

Moreover, Twerkgate was not all cotton candy. Sandwiched between stories of sex and scandal was a multifaceted news item with undercurrents of race, sexuality, women's objectification and liberation, parental rights, and censorship. These issues may not be as immediately pressing as the use of chemical weapons against civilians and a possible retaliatory U.S. military strike in Syria, but neither are they trivial. Indeed, the political and social implications of Twerkgate may help explain why both the press and the public paid as much attention to it as they did.

So, neither conventional wisdom seems entirely true... or entirely off base. Last week Americans did receive a large dose of sensationalized news about a celebrity's bottom. Yet, some of that coverage also dealt with weighty social issues. Ultimately, the media covered Syria far more than Cyrus. And while Americans clearly wanted to hear more about Cyrus than Syria, most nonetheless appear to have consumed at least some news about the latter.

As is often the case, one can see this as a glass half full or half empty. The media do, at least sometimes, cover serious issues more than frivolous ones and the public does--again, at least sometimes--learn. Do the media and public do enough of either? Surely not. But we clearly do know more this week than last, both about Syria and about twerking.

Amber Boydstun is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Davis. She is author of Making the News: Politics, the Media, and Agenda Setting (2013, University of Chicago Press) and co-author of The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence (2008, Cambridge University Press). Matthew A. Baum is the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications and Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is author of Soft News Goes to War: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy in the New Media Age (2003, Princeton University Press) and co-author of War Stories: The Causes and Consequences of Public Views of War (2010, Princeton University Press).