'Your question wasn't about the economy? Too bad.' Data mining the White House briefing transcripts

Chris Wilson
Yahoo! NewsJuly 19, 2013

On any given day, the interaction between reporters and the White House press secretary at the daily briefing is a master class in obfuscation. Like the dots in a Roy Lichtenstein painting, however, when put together, these specks of data form a composite portrait of the administration. By dividing out the transcripts of the briefings into questions asked by reporters and responses from the White House, one can trace the prominence of any subject as it ebbs and flows in the consciousness of the press corps.

Here, for example, is a chart of how often the word “Guantanamo” was spoken during the briefings. (Click the image to view the live version of this interactive.)


Number of times "Guantanamo" said at the White House briefing.
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Number of times "Guantanamo" said at the White House briefing.


Given that closing down the prison camp was one of President Barack Obama’s most prominent 2008 campaign promises, and one that remains unfulfilled, this is exactly what we would expect to see: A big surge in questions and responses early on, then the occasional resurfacing of the subject in the following four-and-a-half years.

Other queries are more surprising. While we might expect an administration spokesperson to turn every question back to the economy, the magnitude of this phenomenon is startling:


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Meanwhile, one can precisely track the journey of "Obamacare" from pejorative to standard-bearer. Reporters were using the term early on in the administration, but it was not until recently that the administration started to do so:


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Try it yourself: Search for any term you like on the live version of this widget on the Yahoo Signal Tumblr. Found a particularly illustrative term? Let us know.