Who's Still Talking About Guantánamo Bay?

Spring 2020

The past decade of news stories show declining coverage on the prison by the popular press, while a number of people remain in detention.

Following the attacks on September 11th, 2001, scores of individuals were detained at the prison at Guantánamo Bay. With indefinite sentences, and stripped of legal status, detainees at Guantánamo Bay were at the center of public discourse on human rights, counter-terrorism, and nationalism. In Guantánamo Bay (and in U.S. prisons and detention centers around the world), we have documentation of the widespread and gruesome torture of individuals detained. The impact of indefinite detention on the detainees and those connected to them remains largely un-explored in the mainstream media.

In 2009, President Obama signed an executive order to close Guantánamo Bay within a year. At the beginning of that year, 242 individuals were held inside of the prison at Guantánamo Bay in 2010. As of May 2020, the most recent count has the prison population at 40. In contrast to a steady decline in the prison population between 2014 and 2016, the number of individuals detained from 2017 to present has dropped by one.

In response to the continued operation of Guantánamo Bay as a detention facility, I decided to investigate how the media has covered the topic over the past decade.

Historical population of Guantánamo Bay

To gather data for this project, I collected the titles and sources of all articles published about Guantánamo Bay over the past decade from 22 American mainstream media outlets. I used MediaCloud to find all of the articles published about Guantánamo Bay for the given time frame (raw data is available upon request). By studying the days, weeks, and years with the highest spikes in the number of stories reported, I could get a high-level view of when the media's attention focused on Guantánamo Bay.

Stories Over Time

The date with the single most articles published was February 23rd, 2016, with 121 unique articles. This is the point in time when former-President Obama sent Congress his plan to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. The plan was rejected by Congress, and the prison was never closed. There was also a spike in June 2014, when five individuals detained at Guantánamo Bay were transferred to Qatar in exchange for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

In contrast to these short-term events deemed "news-worthy", the mainstream media seldom covered the ongoing impact of the violence by prison guards and interrogators at Guantánamo Bay. The wave of hunger strikes throughout 2013, when 106 out of the 166 detainees stopped eating in protest of their confinement, also went lately uncovered by the mainstream media.

Below, I created a stacked bar chart to illustrate to relative number of reported stories by each news outlet over the time period from 2010-2020. Hover over the bars to see which newsroom each section of the bar belongs to, and select from the drop-down menu to drill down on one of the 22 outlets counted.

Reporting by Source

A History of the Detainee Population, New York Times
Inside Guantanamo Bay's 'longest hunger strike', BBC
Terrorist Assemblages (book)