Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson offered pointed comments to the news media while announcing the arrest of actor Jussie Smollett on Thursday. Smollett, as you by now probably know, said he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack last month, a claim that appears to have been false. He faces felony charges related to filing a false police report.
Johnson wondered aloud: “Why would anyone, especially an African American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile?”
The police chief added: “I only hope the truth about what happened receives the same amount of attention the hoax did.”
On that front, we have good news. It has. Analysis of television and online coverage indicates that the questions about Smollett’s claim and discussion of misdirected initial reactions have surpassed coverage of the allegations when they were first made.
We can look first at mentions on cable news, using GDELT analysis of closed-captioning information compiled by the Internet Archive. On all three major cable news networks, coverage of the Smollett incident spiked much higher after two brothers whom Smollett allegedly paid to stage the attack were cleared by police.
(The figures above are presented as the percentage of 15-second blocks during a day in which “Smollett” was mentioned.)
The Internet Archive also collects broadcast network captioning data from its office in San Francisco. All four broadcast networks spent more time talking about Smollett after questions were raised about his account than at the outset.
GDELT also monitors online news outlets. Its data suggest that there was similarly more coverage in online news articles after Smollett’s story was undermined than when he first made his claim.
That the coverage was heavier once Smollett’s account began being questioned might seem to contradict the impression given by social media, where critics of his account — a group that often overlaps with supporters of President Trump, given Smollett’s suggestion that his attackers were Trump supporters — have pointed to social media posts accepting Smollett’s initial claim at face value. That can give the impression that there was more discussion of the initial allegation than the debunking, even though calling attention to the initial response is itself a form of drawing attention to the revised story.
Twitter and Facebook make it hard to aggregate data on such subjects, but we can turn to another tool that offers insight: Google Trends, which tracks search interest in subjects over time. People were more likely to search for Smollett’s name in the wake of the release of his alleged attackers than they were after he made his initial claim.
That suggests that interest in the story being debunked has been higher than interest in the initial allegation. Note, too, that the data on that chart are truncated as of Tuesday, a function of how Google ensures the validity of its data over time. Looking at hourly data over the past week, though, suggests that search interest in Smollett might hit a new peak with his arrest.
It may at times not seem like it, but Johnson’s wish for more attention being paid to the revised story appears to have been granted.