How many big stories can you follow at the same time? The war in Ukraine? The Islamic State in Iraq? Nude celebrity photos? If you’re scheduling segments for television news or placing articles on a newspaper’s homepage, probably not that many. But even a casual observer might not have the head space for more than two or three major events; after all, there’s work, family and everything else, as well. That’s where things get interesting.
Once upon a time, economists modeled human decisions as perfectly rational, on the assumption that people used all the information available to make optimal choices at all times. Later, however, economists – with a little help from psychologists – realized that there were limits to how much people could think about each decision.
Today these limits, called “bounded rationality,” are more relevant than ever. We have virtually infinite options for things like investments, clothing, music, books and games, all available through the Internet. But we don’t weigh every single option before we buy; we take shortcuts. This means we don’t always make the best choice, but we make choices that we consider good enough.
How is this relevant to the news? Well, it would be impossible to follow every single event happening around the world. Even the best news organizations can’t, because they have finite resources. But the rest of us can’t, either, because we have other things to do besides sitting in front of our various screens. Instead, we delegate to the media the decision of what will draw our attention.
There are only a few global media organizations, and they tend to prioritize a few stories each day. Stories that gain more viewers and readers get more time because they bring in advertising dollars. When the audience loses interest, the stories disappear in favor of something more popular – or at least something with the potential to be more popular.
This means no single story is likely to occupy the news for very long, no matter how important it might be.
Deaths in Syria’s civil war long ago passed the 100,000 mark, with hundreds more every day, but there is almost no coverage today of the day-to-day fighting and plight of civilians there. The novelty has worn off, and new stories have grabbed the attention of the media and public. As a result, Syrian leader Bashar Assad, his cronies and his opponents have the license to keep on killing without much fear of global outcry or intervention. The moment for that appears to have passed.
A look back at this year shows just how fickle the public’s attention can be. Several stories have peaked in the news, but no two have commanded the same peaks of attention at the same time. Google Trends tracks how often people search for keywords – including those related to major events – all over the world. Back in March, the conflict in Ukraine grabbed the world’s attention, but it was largely forgotten when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared. It wasn’t that the action in Ukraine or its global importance diminished, as we would see later in the year; audiences and news organizations simply switched head space and resources to the other story. Two stories could not claim the same peak of attention at the same time.
Then, in July, the fighting in Gaza ramped up along with its audience. But just as it was heading for a Google Trends peak as high as those of Ukraine and MH370, something else happened: the shootdown of another Malaysia Airlines jet in Ukraine. With two big stories developing simultaneously – the plane was shot down on the same day Israel launched its ground invasion of Gaza – neither managed the heights of attention of Ukraine and MH370 earlier in the year.
Within weeks, however, attention shifted again. An outbreak of ebola in West Africa wiped almost everything else off the map. In August, there was another change. Ebola dropped well off its peak, as the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, began to capture eyes from around the world. Then, as the Islamic State has advanced farther across Syria and Iraq and has committed horrific crimes, it has pulled readers and viewers away from ebola and other stories. Of course, none of this has any impact on whether the deaths from ebola are mounting (they are) or concern from public health officials is growing (it is).
Naturally, novelty gives stories an advantage in both media coverage and head space. Even the most gruesome crimes, like the massacres of civilians in Syria, soon drop off the radar. A practical evildoer can try to weather the initial storm of attention and then go on killing relatively undisturbed, or simply wait until an even bigger event distracts the world.
Assad may even be wise to this game. The bloodiest period of the Syrian civil war came in the busiest months of the 2012 presidential campaign in the United States, stretching from the convention season to the election itself. Immediately after the election, deaths dropped for several weeks. It could have been pure coincidence, or something more sinister.
From then on, the conflict in Syria was barely a blip for the media. It was another spin on political theorist Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase describing the crimes and criminals of the Holocaust, “the banality of evil.” As far as the news media and its consumers were concerned, continuous and repeated evil really was just banal. It wasn’t news anymore if it wasn’t new.
The spotlight did return to Syria in the summer of 2013 with the use of chemical weapons on civilians, which was probably the result of a failure in the chain of command. But that spike – from a spectacular and well-documented crime against humanity – didn’t last long, either. Perhaps there were too many other tragedies competing for attention. Or maybe everyone was playing Grand Theft Auto V.
Either way, even something as terrible as the deaths of children from chemicals could not hold the public’s attention for more than a few days.
And who could blame them? The Internet has shortened people’s attention spans so much that they are like hummingbirds darting from flower to flower in search of titillation. In the meantime, the globalization of the media through information technology has bombarded people with ever more stories from around the world. There simply isn’t enough time to take everything in, let alone focus on one or two issues above all the others.
This situation used to be unique to people like the president of the United States, who receives daily briefings on hot spots around the world. Now, however, all of us are hooked up to this combination of a gushing fire hose and an ever-changing kaleidoscope. Is it any wonder that, like him, we can’t focus long enough on any one thing to do something about it?
Altman teaches economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business and is chief economist of Big Think.