Is the Khashoggi Story Really About Trump?
The grisly slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul early last month made headlines across the world. In its aftermath, those inside the White House believed the story would quickly blow over as the media lost interest. Instead, the combination of the story’s implicit implication of the White House and the Turkish government’s skillful media campaign has kept it going for nearly two months. Most intriguingly, the fact that media coverage only took off once the story became about the White House’s unwavering support for the Saudi government suggests the story was never solely about Khashoggi. It was always about another way to condemn the Trump administration.
Most large media stories follow a predictable and precise mathematical curve. Within hours of the event, coverage reaches a peak that lasts typically for two to three days. With a half-life of 3.5 days, total reporting on the story declines rapidly and all but disappears within two weeks. This formula holds true regardless of whether the event was sudden and unexpected or gradual and highly anticipated. It even manifests itself across languages and regions of the world.
In essence, no matter how much devastation, destruction or death a story entails, the media here and around the world become bored and move on in short order.
However, this pattern assumes that media coverage is “organic,” meaning that reporters have access to all known information in real-time. In contrast, when salient information is disseminated over time, bit by bit, a story remains in the news for far longer, as there is constantly something new to report on.
In the case of Jamal Khashoggi, the Turkish government has executed a nearly textbook media campaign, slowly releasing information over nearly two months. In many cases the releases seem timed to allow the Saudi Arabian government to issue a fresh explanation that the Turkish government promptly counters with new evidence.
The timeline below shows the total percentage of airtime (as measured in 15-second intervals) of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News daily coverage from October 1 to November 26 that mentioned “Khashoggi” (using data from the GDELT Project’s processing of the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive).
The initial confusion over whether Khashoggi was dead, missing or had walked out of the consulate of his own accord caused interest to build gradually as reporters weren’t initially certain if there was any foul play involved. As graphic allegations of killing and dismemberment were made by the Turkish government, the story took off. Yet, as we will see in a moment, this is also the period when the story pivoted from a missing journalist in a foreign country to the Trump administration’s unwavering support of the Saudi government in the face of murder accusations.
Unlike most big stories, which fade rapidly over two weeks, the Khashoggi slaying maintained nearly constant attention from October 11 to October 23. This was also the period in which online news coverage maintained steady coverage of the White House’s support for the Saudi government. The story began a resurgence on November 12 as new details emerged allegedly connecting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directly to the death and President Trump again became the focal point of the story.
Overall, CNN has paid the most attention to the killing, spending almost as much airtime on it as MSNBC and Fox News combined. Fox has paid the least attention: 40 percent less than MSNBC and 94 percent less than CNN.
The timeline below shows the percentage of worldwide online news coverage in 65 languages monitored by the GDELT Project, by day, that mentioned “Khashoggi.”
A look at online media shows a much longer gestation period, with coverage slowly and steadily increasing to a peak on October 20 as Saudi Arabian officials finally acknowledged that the journalist had been killed in their consulate. Once the Saudi government acknowledged this, online media interest declined.
Unlike the White House’s initial assumption that the story would completely fade away, the steady drumbeat of fresh revelations from the Turkish government has ensured a constant level of coverage that has lasted now almost two months. As with television coverage, there has been renewed attention in the last few weeks regarding potential evidence tying the crown prince more directly to the slaying.
At the same time, the timeline below shows the percentage of online news coverage of the Khashoggi killing that also mentioned “Trump.” Initial coverage barely mentioned the White House’s support of the Saudi government until October 8 when it rapidly became a dominant focus. This is also the same day when American television coverage began to focus on the story. Similarly, as the percentage of online coverage mentioning Trump dropped below 50 percent, American television coverage of the story abruptly ended. As Trump became the focus again, rising over 50 percent of online coverage, American television news once again picked up the story.
Looking globally, there is also strong correlation between coverage of the story and the percentage of those stories mentioning Trump other than a brief window leading up to the Saudi admission of guilt when international media focused less on Trump and more on Saudi practices of silencing critics.
What impact has all this media attention had on the public’s interest in the case? The timeline below shows the total volume of Google searches about the journalist through November 24. Google does not release the actual number of searches for a topic, instead using a Y axis that reports 100 percent on the day with the greatest number of searches for the topic during the search period and reporting all other days as a percentage of that peak.
This graph is nearly identical to the volume of online news coverage, showing that search interest has mirrored total worldwide online news coverage of the case. It does not reflect changes in the story’s focus on Trump, suggesting international searches were driven more by total coverage of the story, rather than an interest in the Trump dimension.
Coverage of Khashoggi’s death has followed a very different pattern than that of other major negative stories. It has also attracted far more attention than the dozens of other journalists killed this year or the countless dissidents arrested and executed for offending the Kingdom each year. Even the arrest and forcible resignation (later rescinded) of the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, last year garnered less than half as much attention at its peak.
In the end, the data above suggest the story of Kashoggi’s death was never exclusively about him or even about the tragic dangers journalists around the world face each day. The Turkish government was able to keep the story going through its skillful media rationing, but at its core it was mostly another story about the Trump administration.