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The news attention span

posted 2021.07.08
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MTV reports: Flint, MI has not had water in 1700 days

Every day, every daily news source sends out headlines to their readers via newspapers and the web. Most of the time, the top headlines have no relation to the previous day’s headlines. Sometimes this is not true, such as during an election or a disaster, but even then, stories rarely remain on the front page for more than a couple days.

This implies that the most important thing to hear about changes constantly from day to day. I won’t pretend that doesn’t make sense. If you already heard about something yesterday, you probably don’t need to hear about it again today, unless something changed in the situation.1

But the most important issues do not change as often as the headlines. If headlines are supposed to give information people can act on, it is strange that my best course of action is so disjointed. One day I am supposed to donate money to a political campaign, on the next I am supposed to protest big tech, and today I should write a letter to my senator about Afghanistan.2 Perhaps I dream of a newspaper whose front page headline every day is:

Preventable disease kills thousands daily

The problem with such a newspaper is that they would go out of business. After all, if the headline has been the same for the last month, even if it is the most important action item in the world, people will stop learning anything from it. Your newspaper would be more of an oldspaper.

On the other hand, if you do not repeat the same point every week, people will completely forget about it and nothing will change. Remember when everyone was talking about Gamestop in January? It’s still at $200 a share, six months later, but major news sites have stopped reporting on it. Do we pretend that ransomware, critical race theory, or other issues of the day will not meet the same fate?

I don’t think most people pretend to that. The news has a second function, besides informing concerted political action: it determines what people talk about at the dinner table, what they post about on Nextdoor, and what slogan they put in their Instagram bio. People get bored of talking about the same thing every day, which is why few people bring up “malaria this” and “clean drinking water that” in every conversation they have. The Discourse is not always about doing something in the world. Most people will never be activists or megadonors. They are just trying to show support for the right beliefs when they talk to their peers. The news media enables this brilliantly. Every couple of days, there a new conversation topic is published, usually coordinated across the whole country, and it is typically controversial or sensational.3 So if we ignored all the low-impact news items that are dropped after a week, would our citizenry finally unite to solve the world’s problems? Maybe not. Maybe we would just argue in circles about global development, instead of arguing in circles about more sensational stories. (Though it couldn’t hurt to try…)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a blog post to write about something different from the last one.

  1. The pandemic is unusual in this regard, because it is both very important and constantly changing. As such, it has dominated news coverage since March 2020. 

  2. I suppose the argument then is that different people should be acting on different headlines. This seems partly true, though still, many headlines are not the most relevant issue for nearly anyone. Some others might argue that simply learning about current events is virtuous in and of itself. I disagree: If reading news does not help you or allow you to help others, then what is it good for? And anyway, why are current events the most important thing I should be learning about? Why does the New York Times not teach me how to fill out my taxes? 

  3. Contrast this with most of the most important issues in the world, which are not controversial, not sensational, and which rarely have moments so unusual that the whole country would discuss them at once.