What else can we predict? Seriously Considering Leetaru’s Theory.

In reading Kalev Leetaru’s article Culturomics 2.0: Forecasting large–scale human behavior using global news media tone in time and space, I couldn’t help but wanting to run a similar experiment of my own.  I found it fascinating that by measuring the tone of news coverage in a specific region, one can potentially forecast short-term national stability, or lack there of.  Understandably, perhaps conducting such analysis frequently, especially on local levels might not be cost-effective, but the possibility alone is interesting.

Leetaru’s approach could easily be used in analyzing other political events that might have been predicted by the tone set by traditional news coverage.  One of these is the 2009 Honduran coup d’etat.  In this case, President Manuel Zelaya, who was elected as a conservative, formed an alliance with the Leftist party, also joining forces with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.  The coup d’etat occurred when the army ousted Zelaya on June 28, 2009.  Months of political and economic uncertainly followed.  Could the tone of news coverage have predicted the turmoil?  Leetaru certainly has me believing so.

The methodology used in this study can certainly be challenged by scholars. For instance, why didn’t they use additional databases to compare their results?  Were two enough?  Also, some might question not incorporating social media as one of it’s news sources.

Leetaru wrote, “Given it’s importance as an early organizing tool, social media may provide an important compliment to traditional news content as an early precursor of citizen unrest, but the technical and linguistic complexities, especially the need to operate on large number of vernacular languages across the world, made it beyond the scope of this study.” (pg.5)

I especially appreciate two things in this statement.  For one, he is recognizing that social media is important enough as a tool and that it can compliment this study in the future.  After all, the rapid pace at which social media is evolving, leaves room for considering it in future studies.  Twitter, as an example, might continue to develop in such a way that it truly becomes a quantifiable news platform for the purposes of this study.

Furthermore, Leetaru continues to give traditional news outlets the importance it deserves even in these times where we are highly saturated by digital media platforms that are competing with traditional Journalism.  I think it’s important to recognize that television, print, and radio media platforms continue to be solid sources of information and that their content can solidly contribute to theories such as this one.

It’s a matter of adapting new media to the methodology.  Leetaru refers to how Radio in the 1940’s was a communications platform that served a similar role in forecasting an event.  He states, “From the founding of FBIS and SWB in the leadup to World War II, one of their primary tasks was to analyze the tone of domestic radio broadcasts around the world to determine their posture towards the West. The very first analysis report by SWB’s partner service FBIS was dated 6 December 1941, noting that Japanese radio had dropped its appeals for peace and had increased its criticism of the United States. The Japanese struck Pearl Harbor the following morning. While news monitoring will never perfectly predict the precise details of conflict, it can offer critical advanced warning that the posture of a country has changed.” (pg. 6)

As with any study, there is room for different interpretations and for many to refute it. However Leetaru presents a solid theory and perhaps most importantly, makes the reader think of the possibilities new media platforms will contribute in the future.

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