The news attention span

by damiensnyder3 min read9th Jul 20214 comments

13

World ModelingRationality
Frontpage

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 in K-12, or other issues of the day will not meet the same fate?

I think most people don't 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.


Footnotes


  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 doesn't the New York Times teach me how to fill out my taxes instead? ↩︎

  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. ↩︎

13

4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:57 PM
New Comment
and which rarely have moments so unusual that the whole country would discuss them at once.

Might happen more often if they were constantly discussed though.


Maybe the newspaper should be called:

A Completely Noncontroversial Take

Every Single Day


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

In a similar vein, comment sections usually die out the same way.


Maybe to keep a topic alive, action would have to be taken, regularly. Have we solved this part of the problem yet? etc.

Most of the time, the top headlines have no relation to the previous day's headlines. 

This is wrong. Outlets like the New York Times plan narratives spanning multiple articles well in advance and are not randomly reporting on whatever happens a given day. The same goes for the German Bild Zeitung. 

The problem with printing "Preventable disease kills thousand daily" every day is not that it has a relationship to previous days but that it doesn't progress the narrative. In the old days before clicks were everything, a good newspaper article gets the reader to want to buy the newspaper in the future because they want to know how the narrative progresses. 

If you read "Preventable disease kills thousand daily" five days in a row, why do I buy the newspaper on the 6th day?

A working narrative   "Preventable disease Z kills thousand daily" "Then a stranger comes to town, researcher XY made a discovery that might cure disease Z" "It turns out XY was a fraud". 

As far as the headline go printing the first headline in your post everyday would be highly misleading. You can argue that Flint's water is not clean but that doesn't change the fact that it's massively more clean then it was two decades ago. A newspaper who just reports "it's not clean" in the same way every year would do a massive disservice to it's readers. 

If you read "Preventable disease kills thousand daily" five days in a row, why do I buy the newspaper on the 6th day?

You don't :) I write:

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.

However, by bringing up that extreme example, I approach the question of whether it makes sense to move on from news stories just because they are no longer novel—after all, the problem has not gone away by the time you stop printing about it. It's not clear that repeating important information would create more political action on it, but such a strategy is worth pondering (in my opinion).

As far as the headline go printing the first headline in your post everyday would be highly misleading. You can argue that Flint's water is not clean but that doesn't change the fact that it's massively more clean then it was two decades ago. A newspaper who just reports "it's not clean" in the same way every year would do a massive disservice to it's readers.

When I found that article, I also found several newer articles about how Flint's water is clean now. The headline I chose was from 2019. I just chose Flint because it was the only event I could think of where I remembered seeing headlines like that.

However, by bringing up that extreme example, I approach the question of whether it makes sense to move on from news stories just because they are no longer novel

I see no reason why you wouldn't add new information if you want to do another story on the same topic the way it's done currently. 

At the New York Times you have a bunch of editors sitting together and deciding about what the narrative should be. Then they send out reporters over months to search for stories to fit into the narrative. If the New York Times editors want something to stay the narrative they send out reporters to seek more stories that fit into the narrative.

There's no need to repeat the same story twice. 

I just chose Flint because it was the only event I could think of where I remembered seeing headlines like that.

And they are one of the worst pieces of journalism because they treat clean/nonclean as a binary when it isn't.

Pretending that it's a binary instead of reporting on the changes in grey does a massive disservice to the readers.