On the Media’s recent program, Turning Away, focused on the spike in foreign news coverage following the devastation in Japan and the combat in Libya. That spike, however, plateaued, and now foreign coverage in American journalism is again on the decline. At least until the next crisis, of course.
This prompted some incisive, if somewhat disconcerting, observations from host Brooke Gladstone and her guests, Mark Jurkowitz and Steve Coll. Here is Gladstone introducing the program:
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Jurkowitz at the PEW Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism says that a few weeks back Libya and Japan made up more than 40 percent of the news, an extraordinary number. But now, even as fresh horrors rain down on the people of Libya and Japan, the American media look elsewhere for leads.
Perhaps, says Jurkowitz, that’s because events out there have become both more complicated and less new, a lethal combination for coverage . . .
That last line struck me as being regrettably accurate. More Complicated + Less New = Less Coverage. And less coverage either reflects or engenders no interest. I’m fairly certain that this equation has summed up the way American media works for some time time now; Kierkegaard had already diagnosed the symptoms in the 19th century. But I would also speculate that the dynamics of digital/social media have also ratcheted up the logic the equation seeks to convey, exponentially perhaps. Consider it the Twitterfication of the news cycle. We can’t quite do complicated and sustained very well within the constraints of social media.
The following exchange also provided a helpful schema that rang true, the 12-day disaster editorial cycle:
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steve Coll covered his fair share of natural disaster and war in his decades as foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, and he found that there is a template for many stories, no matter how harrowing. In his experience, earthquake and disaster coverage, in general, follow a 12-day editorial cycle. He witnessed it while covering an earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people in Iran.
The first few days are spent reporting breaking news and casualties and destruction. Around day five, the late miracle story in which search teams find an improbable survivor amidst the rubble. Day seven brings the interpretation of meaning story, with religious overtones. By day 12, it’s essentially buh-bye for now.
So in your mind run through the catastrophes and crisis that have garnered significant media coverage over the last year or so and see if that does not neatly capture the way they were covered. Wait, having a hard time remembering the catastrophes and crisis of the last year? Were you caught off guard, as I was, when we heard that it had been a year since the BP oil spill in the gulf? Vaguely remember something about floods in Australia? Something happened in Tunisia recently right? It seems the logic of our media environment is precisely calibrated to induce forgetfulness.
After Coll expresses some surprise at how quickly we have lost sight of ongoing developments in Japan and Libya, Gladstone asks Coll, “Should we be worried about that?”
Coll is, perhaps justifiably, sardonic in response:
STEVE COLL: Well, we are a global power with military and diplomatic interests and deployments all over the world, and we expend tax dollars and put lives at risk all the time in complicated foreign environments, so yeah, it’s a problem. We ought to be thinking about these places on an empirical basis in greater depth than we sometimes do.