When journalists gather to pitch story ideas, writers are almost always interested in current and upcoming events. A typical pitch meeting at the Standard campus newspaper, for instance, is teeming with ideas and angles for reporting on the present and the future.
Writers will seldom say, “Maybe it’s time we revisit this,” or “we ought to return to this.”
Perhaps news moves on too quickly and doesn’t always take time to reflect on the past.
Freshman journalism major Becca Horton said she has a problem with coverage moving on very quickly from topic to topic.
“Sometimes I feel like we’re conditioned to move on quickly,” Horton said. “There’s just so much new stuff, and it’s all immediate. You have to pay attention to this now or else it’s going to be gone, and then you won’t have any knowledge about anything that’s going on.”
Horton worries about not being able to keep up with current events and said lingering on a single topic would be like compromising the reader’s ability to take in and comprehend “new news” by focusing on “old news.”
She used the wildfires in Australia as an example. Horton said she hasn’t heard any news about the fires in several weeks, “even though I’m pretty sure it’s still going on.”
However, there simply isn’t much coverage right now. Horton said the only things in the news currently are the coronavirus and the democratic primaries.
Horton is right: Coverage of the wildfires has sharply declined.
Google Trends is an analytics software that collects a sample of search requests made to Google and displays interest in a particular topic. The Google Trends graph for Australia wildfires shows interest in the topic was at an all-time high at the beginning of 2020. But from Jan. 7 onwards, the topic’s proportion to all searches on all topics took a nosedive. On March 3, there was 14 times less coverage of the fires compared to its peak.
Who’s to blame for this staggering drop in interest?
Horton pointed to the public. She said people who read and watch the news are responsible for it moving on so quickly. She attributed consumers’ desires to move on quickly to the rise of social media and the internet.
“We’ve gotten used to absorbing things very quickly,” Horton said. “We always want the new thing.”
Media are always catering to what the consumer demands, Horton said. If consumers wanted to move slower, then the media would move slower.
Andrew Cline is a professor of media, journalism and film at Missouri State University. He said part of the reason news moves on so fast is because there’s an assumption on journalism’s side regarding what the public is willing to pay attention to and how long the audience’s attention span is.
“I’m wondering if there’s a structural issue with journalism,” Cline said. “News is what’s new, right? It’s the thing that’s happening today and now; that’s what news is all about.
“(But) news is only one part of journalism. It seems to me that journalism does a bad job of sustaining coverage of a thing largely because there are patterns, formulas and tropes that limit how journalism can look at a thing.”
Those patterns, formulas and tropes can stand in the way of sustained coverage. Events are enticing only when they are new, Cline said.
“Once it stops being ‘new news,’ it’s still going on, but then something new pops up,” Cline said. “So what is journalism to do with Australian wildfires? Structurally, there is a problem and I think it involves two things.
“One: The frames, tropes and patterns that journalists use to look at the world often limit us. If Australia is burning and it’s not new, they don’t know where to take it. Journalists are often poorly prepared to see the number of angles that they can be covering because the structure of journalism is set up in such a way that, as soon as the next new thing happens, they stop thinking about this.”
Two: Cline said news organizations ought to structure their products in such a way that the consumer always knew where to go to find the ongoing stories. Whether it’s a newspaper, radio news or online publication, audiences should have somewhere to go for information that isn’t new but is still important.
Horton said she understands the importance of keeping up with current events, but she also made an argument for sustained coverage. Just because the news media have moved on, she said, it doesn’t mean the issue has been resolved.
She highlighted Flint, Michigan, as another example. The city gained notoriety after 2014 when the drinking water source for citizens changed from Lake Huron to the Flint River. As a result, lead from old pipes leached into the water supply and exposed more than 100,000 residents to elevated lead levels.
Interest in Flint was at its peak at the beginning in January 2016, but by the end of February of the same year, Google Trends showed interests being only 17% of what it was at the peak. At the end of last month, interests were 4% compared to the peak.
Horton recognized there are ways to make sustained coverage interesting, relevant and entertaining, even when time has not given rise to more details or developments. She said journalists can write opinion pieces and renew a story by giving it their own value and passion.
“Events are always happening,” Horton said, “and people ought to go back and cover them.”
Cline said another structure limiting news coverage of important, but not necessarily new, events is funding. Covering news is expensive, and resources need to go where the news is happening.
“You can fly a team to Australia for a couple of weeks, but when the next big thing happens, how do you justify keeping that team in Australia?” Cline said.
Furthermore, Cline said not every news event is worth sustained coverage.
“A thing like the wildfires in Australia – how do you justify continuing to cover that for an American audience?” Cline asked. “That’s the question. I think an answer to that could be found in asking questions such as: ‘What are the continued or long-term effects of those fires?’ (and) ‘What are we continuing to learn about their cause, and how they might affect Australia and the world economically, politically and ecologically?’
“In other words, I think some of these bigger stories need to morph into longer, more thoughtful pieces.”
But that can be hard. Cline said it’s common for journalists to get their “eyes sparkled by the next new thing” once the immediacy of a given event is over.
“It’s their job to cover the next new thing,” Cline said.
He recognized people who work on the periphery of journalism — such as nonfiction book writers, documentary filmmakers and podcasters — can work with journalists in order to maintain coverage of important events.
“It may be that this isn’t journalism’s job,” Cline said. “It may be that somebody else needs to pick this up.”
Above all else, Cline stressed the significance of reporting on “new news” first.
“News is job one,” Cline said. “You’ve got to get that right first. The ability of news organizations to respond well to important news events is the first crucial importance.”