Factchecking Obama: Birther controversy was 4% of newshole, not ‘dominant’ story

In a news conference called Wednesday morning to resolve the controversy over where he was born, President Barack Obama showed his recently-released long-form birth certificate and criticized not only “birthers” who contested his Hawaiian heritage but the media for covering the controversy.

President Barack Obama spoke about his birth certificate on April 27, 2011, in the Brady Press Briefing Room. (Susan Walsh/AP)

During brief remarks, Obama claimed that two weeks ago, when the budget debate was most intense, the controversy over his birthplace was distracting the media from more important matters. Obama said:

…two weeks ago, when the Republican House had put forward a budget that will have huge consequences potentially to the country, and when I gave a speech about my budget and how I felt that we needed to invest in education and infrastructure and making sure that we had a strong safety net for our seniors even as we were closing the deficit, during that entire week the dominant news story wasn’t about these huge, monumental choices that we’re going to have to make as a nation. It was about my birth certificate. And that was true on most of the news outlets that were represented here.

But numbers provided by Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism — which tracks news coverage in its weekly index — contradict Obama’s claim.

For the week of April 11-17, the economy accounted for 39 percent of news coverage, including print newspapers, news websites, radio, network television and cable TV programs.

That same week, Donald Trump’s revival of citizenship questions accounted for “much of the attention directly on the Obama administration, at 4 percent of the newshole,” PEJ reports.

Last week, Trump did receive more media attention, according to PEJ’s index. The 2012 election accounted for 8 percent of the newshole on all platforms, making it the third biggest story, with 3 percent of the newshole specifically focused on Obama, primarily the question of where he was born.

Some of that coverage was related to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto of a bill that would have required presidential candidates to provide proof of birth.

An analysis of cable news coverage specifically shows that 19 percent of the cable news airtime studied focused on the 2012 election last week. Mark Jurkowitz, Associate Director of PEJ, provides this breakdown of the coverage by cable network:

including “The Ed Show,” “Hardball,” “The Last Word,” and “The Rachel Maddow Show”

  • 28% of airtime studied was devoted to the 2012 election
  • 10% of airtime studied was devoted to Obama
  • A subset of that Obama airtime was coded “citizenship and religion rumors” to include “birther” coverage, which was 92% of the Obama coverage

including “Special Report w/Bret Baier,” “Fox Report w/Shepard Smith,” “The O’Reilly Factor,” “Hannity”

  • 16% of airtime studied was devoted to 2012 election
  • 5% of airtime studied was devoted to Obama
  • A subset of that Obama airtime was coded “citizenship and religion rumors” to include “birther” coverage, which was 8% of the Obama coverage

including “The Situation Room,” “John King, USA,” “In The Arena,” and “Anderson Cooper 360″

  • 11% of airtime studied was devoted to 2012 election
  • 5% of airtime studied was devoted to Obama
  • A subset of that Obama airtime was coded “citizenship and religion rumors” to include “birther” coverage, which was 100% of the Obama coverage.

Jurkowitz says MSNBC consistently devotes more of its airtime to politics, based on PEJ’s research, while CNN generally spends the least amount of time on politics of the three cable networks.

While MSNBC’s coverage may have been devoted to questioning or debunking the president’s citizenship issues, that network spent the most time discussing it.

Trump was the number two figure in the news last week, followed by photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya, along with Chris Hondros, who was honored at a memorial service Wednesday in New York.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/henribailey Henri L Bailey

    Actually, about 80% of the Trump coverage was devoted to the Birther conspiracy, or Obama being a “horrible student”, which led back into some of that Obama coverage. It has been a huge story on news media and it has been a dominant online news/blogger news issue. Fact Check yourself.

  • http://profiles.google.com/mkross331 Michael Ross

    This is not convincing. It’s as if a newspaper published a front-page story with a HUGE headline that said “OBAMA BORN IN KENYA” and taking up the whole upper half of the front page above the fold, and then said “But the newspaper has 50 pages, so the story was nothing, really, only accounting for 1% of the publication.

  • http://profiles.google.com/melissawilson745 melissa wilson

    I watch Fox too, and everything I saw was saying he was born in Hawaii, but said Trump is hurting himself with the nonsense. The numbers that, campaigning President, was responded to was the polls, that a huge number thought maybe he was hiding something because he hasn’t been the most open President we have had. It wasn’t a response to coverage , but polls are what got his attention.

  • http://profiles.google.com/melissawilson745 melissa wilson

    I do not think anyone put much into it other than a puff piece at the end of the story, but it is weird that our President responded to this by talking about these important things he has to do, and then Senator Obama flying away to go on the o Network, then more raising money. His idea for important things are out of touch, he is President, and the campaign could go in the back seat, do to very important things we need done in Washington, and that is the troubling part that it seems unimportant to him.

  • http://profiles.google.com/melissawilson745 melissa wilson

    Trump might be posing to get some heat on Obama, but read his own book, he is not a conservative. When the debates start he will become irrelevant there are many great people that the media has given no coverage, and after the caucus in some important states it will not be Palin, or Trump. Palin is a very good hearted person, but wouldn’t run either. Right now, the media is playing big name people, but they only show two percent of our possibilities

  • http://profiles.google.com/melissawilson745 melissa wilson

    I agree or coverage of the storm that is killing many American’s, Trump is playing games with the media and Obama, and I personally don’t care neither one of them want to discuss anything real

  • http://profiles.google.com/melissawilson745 melissa wilson

    Not everything is surrounded by race on the same hand you can see how the media attacked Bush for not being a good student. Trump is not a conservative he is big tax, abortion, and health care, and just picking at Obama because he is got thin skin, and been protected by the media. If ANY other President had such terrible policies they would get more reaction. As the President he should expect some heat all the others got treated like that, but we are so P.C. we have to give him a pass? he sucks bad, and it has nothing to do with what he looks like

  • http://profiles.google.com/melissawilson745 melissa wilson

    Our transparent President needs to scold the media first, because he has such important things to do, the O show, and raising money, also most important blaming someone else for high gas prices, and no budget.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Lauren, thanks for the defense! I appreciate it. The general figures at the beginning of the story (39 percent of news coverage) include print newspapers, radio, Web, network and cable TV. I also broke out the cable figures after a reader requested them. I’ll clarify that in the piece. –Julie

  • Anonymous

    I’m not really sure where these accusations of the author creating this “GOTCHA” piece are coming from. This reads as a neutral story where a journalist surveyed three major cable network news outlets and provided their facts and figures. No where in this story does she claim that the president is a “liar”, if you read a story and interpret it that way its your fault. The author addressed a claim made by the president, checked it against reported statistics that proved to the contrary in a professional manner that had not hint of “smugness”. This is what journalists are supposed to do, they are (supposed to be) the watch dogs. Granted, the way the story was written did make it sound like it was encompassing all types of media coverage when in actuality it only covered three media outlets, but the sources are transparent and its hard to make the argument that the author is a “carnival barker” when she supports her findings with evidence. This is a classic example of why it is important for us as the audience to maintain an active role in determining how what media does for us. Many of you don’t agree with this article, that much is given and mostly with good reason. But the fact is that there is legitimacy to what the article claims – that amongst those three cable news networks, the birth certificate story did not dominate. There is no reason why a personal assault must be launched on the author because it doesn’t fall in line with your idea of how the story should be written.

  • Anonymous

    Obama! Put some clothes on! There are children present!

    Can’t take that president anywhere

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Mike, the PEJ numbers reflect network TV, cable news, radio, Web and print newspapers. The full list is here: http://journ.us/lsjvdN and the full PEJ methodology is here: http://journ.us/iw4bob
    Hope that helps, Julie

  • http://twitter.com/MikeSheaAP MikeSheaAP

    does this study reflect online coverage?

    if so, then it’s flawed…

    it doesn’t matter if it’s a conservative-leaning site, a liberal-leaning one or a mainstream site…

    the birtherism story has been plastered everywhere for a year, but more so than ever over the past few weeks because of Trump…

    all Trump had to do was show up on the Today show, say a bunch of lies, and then it would get picked up from everyone at Huffingtonpost to Drudge and beaten to death with drumbeat rhythm for ever.

    did they include talk radio too in this study?

    if this only reflects network tv and cable news then it’s a misleading title to this piece.

    network tv news is essentially irrelevant anymore as far as framing the news cycle. all they do is respond to whatever the web and talk radio is screaming about this week.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    You’re obstinately ignoring important facts that have been repeatedly pointed out to you — ones that puncture the basic premise of your argument. This is a really bad trait for a reporter – so I guess it’s good that you’re not one.

  • http://profiles.google.com/philboid Philboid Studge

    E tu, Poynter? I wondered if the birtherism story could get any dopier, and Julie Moos comes through with an emphatic ‘Yes we can!’ Congratulations.

  • http://twitter.com/jtLOL ‘Jim’ ‘Treacher’

    Maybe if you fume about it some more.

  • http://twitter.com/jtLOL ‘Jim’ ‘Treacher’

    See, it’s smug because he doesn’t like it.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Excellent point: There are many measures that can point to how dominant a story is, including when in a newscast or program it airs, whether it appears above the fold on the front page of a newspaper with a photo and big headline, whether it’s covered by a high-profile reporter or commentator. The amount of coverage is one measure of dominance, not the only measure. –Julie

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Dan, you are absolutely correct that there are many other factors that contribute to the perception of dominance, including when stories run and how they are handled. However, by the most basic measure of dominance — time spent — the birther story did not get more attention than the budget battle two weeks ago, as the President said it had. I’m not assigning blame or saying it should have received more or less attention, only that the statement was factually incorrect. –Julie

  • Anonymous

    Moar data for your “news” piece: REPORT: Fox Promotes Birther Myth In At Least 52 Segments (http://mediamatters.org/research/201104270009)

    Also, could you explain as to how 47% of the republicans came to believe that President Obama was not born in the US if the birther issue hasn’t been a dominant issue in the media?

    “In April 2011, a New York Times-CBS News poll found that a plurality of Republican voters, 47 percent, said they believed Mr. Obama was born in another country; 22 percent said they did not know where he was born, ”


  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sue-Barnhart/1174933441 Sue Barnhart

    not only were they covering it they were ignoring that it’d already been proven untrue. We have really really CRAPPY media in this country. Driven only by ratings not by any interest in educating the public or exposing the truth. useless media

  • Anonymous


    The racist birthers pursing outright lies with Republican elected officials assisting with a wink and a nod is why this is a news story in the first place. But that’s not as important as getting out a calculator to see if the president was inaccurate about just how big a waste of time this horses@@t is.

  • Anonymous

    Really? Now something else President Obama is wrong about. This has dominated the media, the water coolers, etc. It is a shame because our nation, our world has many other issues to discuss and solve. I am not the first to state that racism is in play.There can be many factors why someone does not like a particular president and why a particular president receives criticism, but I have never seen someone so scrutinized and disparaged. I think America is showing that they really are not ready for a non-white president.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504633504 Dan Mitchell

    Generally, I appreciate the puncturing of myths that the media isn’t covering something, or is overcovering something. But you didn’t do that here — at all.

    It would have been fine if you had put it into context — acknowledging up top that measuring newsholes doesn’t present a complete picture because it doesn’t take into account how stories are emphasized, promoted, passed around, and commented upon. Or what time of day they air. But you don’t acknowledge that at all. You set this up as a “contradiction” of what Obama said when it is, at best, a contextualization of it.

    Obama is guilty of using mild hyperbole to make a legitimate point. You make it sound as if he were basically lying — in fact you come close to outright saying that. Blunt-force measurements of newsholes aside, the birther story got more attention than did any of the things he cited as having gone undercovered. This is as much the fault of the news audience as it is of the media, but it’s still the case.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000800503088 Brian Igo

    Jesus, what an embarrassment.

    This is why no one cares when newspapers die. Your trade isn’t disappearing because of the internet, it’s going away because of putrid work like this. Enjoy oblivion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-Armshaw/5245862 Patrick Armshaw


    So, a plurality of Republican voters believe that Obama was not born in the US, and another third are unsure; Trump becomes the LEADING candidate among Republican voters purely on the basis of an appeal to birtherdom; several other major Republican politicians either voice concern over Obama’s citizenship, or give support to those who do so (Gingrich, Palin, and a host of others); all of this despite Obama’s having shown his birth certificate in 2008 to the media; and Poynter thinks the real news story here is that his claim that birtherdom was the biggest story of two weeks ago is exaggerated according to an unbelievably atheoretical metric.

    What conceivable purpose does this site serve?

  • Anonymous

    The Fox figure may actually be more like 21% because most 2012 election coverage from these shows dealt with how the Obama Administration is ruining America.

  • Anonymous

    Allow me to reinterpret this story.

    The fifth biggest story in the news over the recent weeks has been the nonsense on the level of black helicopters and ridiculous conspiracy theories that were once laughed out of decent society. What if the 9/11 “truthers” accounted for “only” 3% of the newshole during a period in the early aughts?

  • http://profiles.google.com/ojintoad Todd Ogin

    I don’t find this surprising from old Barry O. A real citizen would have never made such a flagrant mistake. I’d like to see his cable bill that shows he actually watches these shows, until then I have no confidence he’s paying as much attention to Wolf Blitzer as he should.

  • http://twitter.com/allanbrauer allanbrauer

    Is even one percent coverage of a known lie and one second of airtime to proven liars too much? I say yes. I dispute your methodology and agree with those that your counting methods are pedantic and unreflective of the tone and tenor of the mainstream media’s obsessive flogging of this contemptible slander. Shame on your entire profession.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    PEJ doesn’t track 24 hours/day. They track certain shows (mostly primetime) as well as newspapers and other media. In the story above, I’ve added a list of the programs that were included. The full PEJ methodology is here: http://journ.us/iw4bob The full list of newspapers, websites, network, cable and radio programs is here: http://journ.us/lsjvdN

  • http://profiles.google.com/rp509855 Rod Paul

    Do those broadcast numbers include total broadcast time, 24 hours /day, or just the ‘news’ programs? Cable folks like MSNBC and Fox love to argue news is separate from opinion – and the little I saw of Fox, for example, makes me doubt those numbers include their ‘opinion’ programming.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    The only reason I say Fox & CNN are least — and hesitate to put Fox last — is because according to PEJ, the birther stuff could have been coded either in the 2012 election coverage or the Obama coverage. So while Fox is much lower on the birther coverage within Obama coverage, I can’t be sure how much of their 2012 coverage was also birther. Either way, they devoted less airtime to it than MSNBC and not much more (or possibly less) than CNN.

  • Anonymous

    So you’d rather not know about that poll?

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    I’ve just added those figures to this story. In fact, MSNBC did the most stories, then Fox, then CNN.

  • Anonymous

    I see that the mainstream media — the carnival barkers desperate to absolve themselves of any responsibility for humping Trump into his leading the GOP presidential field based on his deeply racist smearing of Obama — has picked up on this atrocity of Poyters here Twitseek – from:juliemmoos. I imagine, Ms. Moos, you are basking in the glory of being retweeted so many times, and therefore the chance of you doing some better reporting is diminishing to nil.

  • Anonymous

    It’s not what “people” found most interesting. It’s what the mainstream press — the carnival barkers — found most interesting. For example, how many stories were written on that CBS poll from two weeks ago and other recent polls finding close to a majority of Republican voters were birthers?

    What were the carnival barkers tweeting about? How many times did YOU tweet about Trump, Ms. Moos?

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Good idea. I’m asking Pew for the figures. If they’re able to provide, we’ll publish them. –Julie

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Good point, Rod. Pew used to track news interest in a separate index, but I haven’t seen those numbers in a while so I’m not sure whether they still do. It was always interesting to look at the discrepancies between what was covered most and what people found most interesting. –Julie

  • Anonymous

    From Balloon Juice., this is why pieces like this superficial, jump-on-the-bandwagon, insulting piece by Ms. Moos are so infuriating:

    “Our President spends several years having people question his citizenship, his commitment to this nation, his eligibility to be President, and so on, simply because his dad was black and he himself is black. And this persists even after it has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt that he is a citizen. The Supreme Court has laughed it off. The military has court martialed birthers. Orly Taitz is one frivolous lawsuit away from being deported to Ukraine or wherever she was spawned. There simply is no doubt that the President is American, and there has never been any doubt. These claims have been nothing but specious, ugly, racially motivated charges, yet today, after the redundant “long form” is released, Sullivan and Newt Gingrich know who the real villain is- President Obama.”

    And you, Ms. Moos, are one of the carnival barkers with a megaphone — “Oh! Gotcha! It WASN’T the most discussed story of the week! Obama’s a LIAR! Obama’s WRONG AGAIN! HAHAHA! Gotcha!”

    Do the decent thing, Poynter. Apologize to your readers for this insulting piece.

  • Anonymous

    That the birther story occupied any of the new agenda is a success for the birthers. I’d love to see the disaggregated data. My guess is that Fox (and its now-clone CNN) carried even more stories on this.

  • Anonymous

    I disagree with your formulation, Ms. Moos. And I fail to see how your smug little “Gotcha!’ piece is helpful at all here. The methodology of the Pew survey is not equipped to explore this kind of coverage, or you don’t know how to read and interpret it. The issue permeated all of the broad classifications that Pew uses for its survey.

    I suggest that you go back and write a better piece. Do some real journalism. Go to Nexis Lexis, for example, and report back on how this issue found its way into economic news, congressional coverage, the White House briefing, regional and local coverage, even the political comedy shows, and try to quantify that. As it is, your piece here is superficial nonsense that adds nothing.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks for commenting, Thomas. There’s certainly more to this issue than the quantity of coverage. The quality of it matters, the accuracy matters, the balance and so on. And all of that could and should be debated. However, it should be debated with a shared understanding of the facts, which in this case include that the President’s citizenship was not the dominant story that week. –Julie

  • http://profiles.google.com/rp509855 Rod Paul

    Newshole is not the same as news interest; if you honestly think more readers were interested in the deaths of a couple of photojournalists that had never heard of than were interested in — and discussing — Trump’s bloviating birfoonery, you’ve completely lost touch with the audience.

    Maybe that explains the decline of journalism better than anything.

  • Anonymous

    You can sit back smugly and pat yourself on the back, Ms. Moos. You certainly scored a “Gotcha!” here. Although, I don’t think your survey actually captures the issue adequately. The story has permeated news coverage in ways that your survey doesn’t address.

    Big Trump interviews on CNN and Fox, a complete, multi-evening debunking on CNN, the White House Correspondent from CNN, Ed Henry, “going there” yesterday at the news briefing, “birther” bills, comments by Republican lawmakers making their way into stories on the economy, Donald Trump being interviewed on every channel. In fact, if you look at Pew’s classification of “Presidential Election by Sector” you see the major topic there was almost exclusively that of Donald Trump coverage. And then, almost every reputable news venue wrote a story debunking the issue, yet again.

    I really expect better analysis than this from Poynter.