Sometimes, the biggest story at the Olympics is not actually the Olympics. Sometimes it can be tragic or scandalous, but occasionally these kinds of stories can be something ridiculous that just got out of control.
This past Sunday, August 14, U.S. Olympic swimmer and multi-gold medalist Ryan Lochte made international headlines, claiming that he and three other members of the U.S. men’s swim team had been robbed at gunpoint in Rio by individuals posing as police officers. This led to heavy coverage on athlete safety, the security conditions in the city, and the integrity of the Games themselves.
However, today Lochte admitted he fabricated the story.
We used our media monitoring and analysis software to analyze all the U.S. online news media coverage of the story from its breaking on August 14 to the latest developments on August 18 (over 25K stories), in order to offer some perspective on how a news story evolves over time.
When the story initially broke on Sunday, there was extensive coverage regarding the main points of the incident that had been conveyed by Lochte and U.S. Olympic officials. The words “gunpoint” (66%) and “robbery” (90%) appeared prominently within the content.
By Monday the story had further intensified, with the new detail that Lochte said that a gun was put to his forehead, a point that was highlighted by 75% of all stories for the day. More so than that, the safety of the athletes and their security was called into question (77%), with several outlets referencing the new safety precautions which were announced by the Australian Olympic team in the wake of the alleged robbery (76%).
By Tuesday there was a slight shift in content, including that Rio police had found no/scant evidence that there had been a robbery, and further comments by Lochte that they were afraid they would get in trouble if they reported the robbery right away.
It also seemed on Tuesday that interest in the story was coming to an end, as it reached its lowest mark. That wasn’t the case at all, though — not by a long shot.
Indeed, on Wednesday the situation deepened, as NBC reported that Lochte had changed his story on key details (mentioned in 20%), including that a gun had never been at his forehead (15%). On top of this, Lochte was now back in the U.S., while Rio police had pulled two of his fellow swimmers off a U.S.-bound plane and seized their passports.
On Thursday the 18th, everything for Lochte and the other swimmers came crashing down.
Coverage of the saga in the U.S. media was higher that day by almost 3 times when it was initially reported. As surveillance video from the night in question became public, what had initially been portrayed as a violent robbery by individuals impersonating police was now a story about drunken U.S. swimmers vandalizing a bathroom and getting into an argument with staff and security at a gas station.
The media completely turned on Lochte, as over half that day’s news items (52%) included a mention that either they had “lied” or “made up” the initial story. It seemed almost inevitable, but by the end of the day there were finally confirmed reports from two of Lochte’s cohorts that they had fabricated the robbery story.
Sentiment towards Lochte was initially very positive, with several articles noting his comments from Instagram on the 15th, that they were all safe and unharmed, despite their traumatic ordeal.
By the end of the 18th, though, sentiment had pulled a complete 180 towards Lochte and his cohorts. The New York Times referenced his “Ryan Seacrest”-desire for the spotlight, Mercury News referred to him as an “ugly”, “attention-seeking” American, The New York Post wrote that Lochte is “everything the world hates about America,” while Today predicted that this whole debacle will cost Lochte millions in endorsements.
Today it seems though that this ordeal has finally come to a close, with the U.S. Olympic Committee issuing a formal apology and confirming the details, including that one of the swimmers had indeed vandalized the gas station bathroom, and that the swimmers had also gotten into an argument with the staff.
Several sources also highlighted that, with the full story now coming to light, we should not be surprised, considering who was at the centre of the controversy.
At this point, though, it’s probably time to focus on the last few days of Olympic competition, and, as CNN put it, stop talking about this.
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