There is a man in Africa named Joseph Kony who is forcing children to become soldiers. A horrible storm called Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast and thousands are still affected. A recent school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in which 20 children and six adults were slain demonstrated our need for more effective gun control. All of these issues received press coverage but have been more or less forgotten since then. An in-depth article on any of these topics today would be met with questions, from editors and readers alike, such as “Why is he writing about this now?” and “How is this relevant?”
There has always been an emphasis on topicality in journalism, but that emphasis has drifted toward an obsession in recent years, as the proliferation of news sources has created desperation for rapid reporting. Scandals that used to play out over weeks take place over the course of a day. The national attention span has waned. Our society has become increasingly impatient, and our media coverage reflects that.
Take this hypothetical: A politician says something racist and 45 minutes later, it’s all over Reddit and Buzzfeed. CNN and Fox News have analysts onscreen within the hour giving pundit perspectives. After two hours, a statement is issued, claiming the politician’s remarks were taken out of context or misconstrued. Then 10 minutes after that, a so-called representative of the insulted minority group goes on MSNBC to explain why the statement was not apologetic enough and why this will hurt him going forward. After three hours, the story is dead.
This fast-paced coverage is perhaps inconsequential for unimportant events like the previous example. But it hurts worthy causes such as ousting Kony, helping victims of Hurricane Sandy or fighting for stricter gun control in the wake of Sandy Hook. These issues arise in the national consciousness for a week or two and then are forgotten.
We have traded something for this 24-hour news cycle, for this incessant coverage of anything and everything. We have traded something for Twitter, for Reddit, for a world always and instantly connected. What we have traded is the ability to differentiate between filler and real stories, between the issues that deserve our undivided attention and those that simply exist to pass the time. We have made it harder for social activism to gain traction. The public is losing influence in Washington, D.C., because it is distracted and no longer pays any attention to Washington. By covering everything, the media cheapen the stories that deserve extensive coverage and hurt those who could be helped by extended public attention, as oxymoronic as that phrase has become.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, May 2 print edition. Ian Mark is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]