“Who’s in control of our attention span”? Mickey Glantz. May 28, 2010

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on May 28, 2010 with No Comments

Who’s in control of our attention span?
Mickey Glantz
May 28, 2010
Back in the early 1960s my Political Theory professor mentioned that a study then showed that the attention span to any particular issue of a typical American was on the order of 2.3 years. In the mid-1970s Anthony Downs wrote about the American Public’s “issue-attention cycle.” These two pieces of information made sense to me; one providing a time dimension and the other providing the process.

But that was then and this in now. My observation today is in conflict with those earlier pieces of information I had learned about. The fault was mine though, as well as of the professors. Those pieces of information (unchanging facts, I thought) were era-dependent pieces of information that no longer apply to reality today.

The issue-attention cycle seems to still work. Anthony Downs (Public Interest, 28 [1972:Summer]), wrote an article entitled “Up and down with ecology: the issue-attention cycle”, and described the cycle in the following way: (1) a pre-problem phase; (2) an alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm phase; (3) realizing the cost of significant progress phase; a gradual decline of intense public interest phase; (5) the post-problem stage.

According to Downs, “A study of the way this cycle operates provides insights into how long the public attention is likely to remain sufficiently focused upon any given issue to generate enough political pressure to cause effective change.”

Today, it is not the attention span of the public that matters but the attention span of the media in heavy competition for increasing their share of the public’s attention. It’s a money thing: more viewers, readers, and listeners means more advertisers and more advertising revenue. The media are not there to educate the public. They are businesses. Bad news takes precedent over good news, because they provide for attention-grabbing headlines.

I am not sure what started the downward spiral of reduced attention span of the public but I have a sneaky suspicion it was the media. Take TV, as an example: at night turn off all lights. Turn on the TV. Put your back to the TV and watch how quickly the scenes or news items change — every few seconds. Get the USA Today and count the number of short news items, not full stories. Check news on your iPod or iPad or iPhone or antroid: they come in brief news clips. Our (the public’s) attention span has eroded tremendously in the past 40 years. It now seems that the media determines what we focus on and how long we will focus on it. rhodesignattnspan2

Some examples?
The health care issue: how many are still in the dark about what to expect from the health care package that was covered by the media 24 hours a day and 7 days a week over one year? I am. Then attention was diverted to our financial crisis. Some months ago media coverage of the near collapse of Wall Street brokerages and the American banking system was relentless, 24-7 coverage: we’re all going to be broke left to work till we die …most likely in poverty. The problems remain; the media coverage of them does not. Media attention shifted to the Toyota cover-up of mechanical problems with its flagship auto models: hearing in Washington, DC including testimony by Mr. Toyoda himself. The problem remains. The coverage is gone. Now there is the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of a collapsed off-shore rig and media are focused there, again, 24-7.

The wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the continued financial fragility of the American economy persists teetering in unstable equilibrium at the moment, and Toyota along with other auto companies are engaged in massive recalls of their products and, oh yeah, Al-Queda continues its attempts to terrorize Americans on their own soil continue, but the media has chosen to focus on the oil spill in the Gulf 24-7. And soon the hurricane season will begin and the media will focus on that or some other quick onset event. The point is that the media are controlling the public’s attention span. We (the public) are led like cows with rings in our nose to wherever the media wants to take us. animal-with-nose-ring

As a result, no issue gets the attention it deserves, no, demands, in order to resolve it. The wars go on. The financial crisis continues. Wall Street brokers and our bankers likely resort to “business as usual” sleazy financial practices.

The public must first be made aware of what has happened: the media is used to telling us what to think, how to think it and why but as importantly when to think it. It is time for us to take back control of the issue-attention cycle, returning to a longer cycle so we can actually work through issues to reasonable conclusions. We likely cannot change the progression of the cycle but we can stay on topic until we understand it enough to resolve it in an intelligent way.


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