It's Only News For a Day
The news about Gord Downie's death this morning hit me like a ton of bricks, even though we all knew this day was coming. It seems every few days lately there's another shocking story, but this time there was some warning.
59 people were gunned down in Las Vegas in the worst mass murder in US history just two and a half weeks ago. We hardly hear a thing about it now. A month ago, the leaders of the US and North Korea were threatening nuclear war like never before, but once again the story has virtually disappeared from daily news runs.
When I worked in the news media many years ago we used to shake our heads at how quickly news stories came and went and had a term for it - "It's only news for a day." The shelf life of stories isn't a long one.
Why is that? Why do we seem to move on so quickly from stories that had captivated us? Do we want to hear more about them, or do we just get bored? Answers aren't easy to find.
Rocketman vs. Dotart
I saw somebody speculate on Twitter that Donald Trump picked a fight with NFL players by calling them “sons of bitches” and suggesting they should be fired for not standing for the national anthem to divert the media’s attention from the fight he was having with North Korea.
I don’t think Trump operates that way, but if that was the reason for his profane language and confrontational stance, it worked pretty well.
After a week of bitter relations with North Korea in September grabbing headlines and terms like Rocketman and “dotart” being tossed around, there was suddenly next to nothing in the news about the dispute. It was almost as if the US and North Korea had made up and had become friends. The focus suddenly turned to NFL players and how they protested racial issues before football games. What happened to that nuclear war that seemed so possible just a week ago?
We’ve seen this ebb and flow occur in the news a countless number of times over the years. What seemed to be such a big story one day was suddenly trumped (no longer the best choice of words by the way) by a much bigger, or more interesting story.
A Tale of Two Hurricanes
Take the recent example of the two hurricanes that slammed the Caribbean and parts of the US. Hurricane Harvey came first and eventually ripped into Texas, but when Irma gathered strength and belted the Caribbean and tore through Florida, recovery efforts from Harvey in Texas took the media’s back seat.
For several days there was coverage of recovery and fundraising efforts in Houston, but the tap on that story quickly ran dry because the focus turned to Florida.
During the two hurricanes it seemed that even Trump became rather quiet. Perhaps he figured that wasn’t the best time to be saying outrageous things on Twitter, or maybe the media had its focus on the hurricanes and didn’t pay as much attention to Trump. I think it was the latter.
Short Attention Spans
While any form of traditional media (TV, radio and newspapers) follow dozens of stories every day, there’s only one story that can lead the 6:00 news on television, one story that gets its headline above the fold in a newspaper and one story the various panels on CNN can be talking about at a given time.
When there’s one dominant story, others are forced to take a backseat because they don’t get top billing by the media. This makes it harder for certain stories to stand out. Think for a moment when you watch the 6:00 news on TV and the anchor says, “We start with breaking news this evening….” Most people pay more attention, and the story’s impact is greater. Compare that to putting the same story 20 minutes into the newscast. It could be written and presented the same way, but its impact would be far less.
Smart pr and communications people understand this. They don’t want to hold a news conference to make an important announcement on a day they know news coverage will focus on another big story such as an election, or a controversial budget.
On a somewhat similar note, If there’s bad news to announce, governments and others have got pretty good at making the announcement late on a Friday afternoon. There may not be another big story in the news, but most people are thinking about their weekend and what they plan to do, and not about the news. If they do hear news about a reduction in services, or a tax increase, it will have less immediate impact on them because they’re thinking about other things that are more important at the time.
Keep in mind, there is more news and information coming at us today than ever before. Social media works like a pipeline to bring news and events to us without looking for them and like a megaphone to make them appear bigger than they are.
Why Such a Short Shelf Life?
That brings us to the question of why news stories have such short shelf lives. I’m sure there will be more stories about the Las Vegas shooting in the coming days, but they’ll likely only cause a ripple and will disappear as quickly as they came.
Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will likely drop the gloves again through the media, but unless a nuclear war breaks out, will people really care about more sabre rattling and name calling?
I do have to admit, there’s something strange about almost five dozen people being gunned down at an outdoor concert and a couple of weeks later you have to look hard to find any story about it in the news. But that’s the way it works.
We almost know another mass murder will happen again in the US. We’ll be shocked, people will demand change, but in less than a week we’ll be talking more about the latest bit of celebrity news instead.
We woke up one morning to an apparent terrorist attack in Edmonton and the next to a mass shooting in Las Vegas. We barely digested those two stories to find out that Tom Petty had died. Almost before we finished playing Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes to remember how great his music was, we were horrified about the damage caused by a hurricane in Puerto Rico and shook our heads at how it suddenly became a political issue. The focus of the media then shifted to a big Hollywood producer and we were shocked as well-known actresses came forward, recalling how they were sexually harassed and sexually assaulted by him. Now we learn that Gord Downie's gone and who knows what will happen next?
To the news world, it’s the “circle of life.” Why it happens isn’t easy to understand or explain.
As always, your thoughts and comments are appreciated.