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news, agenda setting, and you

11 Mar

Since the beginning of this year, the news cycle has gone from what we call a 24-hour one (i.e., around the clock) to what I call an instantaneous one. Critical events happen, and there is no time to cover them with the weight and detail they deserve, before other critical events, often in unrelated areas, occur (in the 24-hour news cycle there isn’t necessarily new news, it’s just that we never stop talking — what’s been happening is something else). We went from the Arizona shooting, to MENA uprisings (which continue), to the union situation in the US (which is continuing), to today’s earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan.

And that’s leaving out other critical stories: WikiLeaks, the treatment of Bradley Manning, anti-bullying initiatives from the White House, equal marriage rights debates in multiple states, the appalling hearings on Islamic radicalization in the US, the war on Planned Parenthood, and the retirement from political life of the Dalai Lama. And I’m sure I’ve left out other critical stories. And that’s not even counting the stuff that’s really dropped off the radar. Like Haiti.

So what’s a person to do, when trying to do a Friday link roundup other than throw their hands up in despair?

The easy answer, the terrible answer and is my instinct to say, is I don’t know. Despite being a generalist, someone who works well on deadline, who’s very quick on the uptake, with a background in journalism and a career in media analysis, it all feels like too much, even to me, as someone whose job it is to never feel like it’s too much. But the first thing I do every morning when I wake up, is check the news on my Blackberry before I even get out of bed (something that drives Patty up the wall). I get up faster on days terrible things have happened. Today’s been one of those days.

The harder answer is, that as much as I talk about news selection and agenda setting as regards what the news puts out there, news selection and agenda setting also happens at home. It happens in what media any of us choose to consume. And, when stories get big, bad, and difficult, the impulse is often to consume less to preserve our own sense of well-being; or to consume more as if data helps us have control, as if more is always better.

But what we really need to do is be editors for ourselves. Am I annoyed ABC isn’t really covering the union crisis in the US? Yes. But I’m also annoyed when it’s all MSNBC covers, because I also need information about the MENA region (for which I’ve been relying on CNN out of the domestic options, and Al-Jezeera online for the international option). Meanwhile, I get my queer news headlines from The Advocate, but they never go into enough depth, and rely on my Twitter feed to point me to the news I need about WikiLeaks and Manning’s detention.

Of course, you aren’t me. You don’t need or want to watch two, five, or ten hours of news a day. So I’m not going to tell you to consume more news (unless you aren’t consuming any). And I’m not going to tell you what delivery technology to use. But I want to emphasize how news selection affects the information you get, especially on a day where a lot of us probably flipped on a 24-hour news channel and have left that channel on all day.

Haiti didn’t stop needing help because the media stopped covering it. The protesters in Egypt didn’t go home because the war reporters went to Libya. The right to collective bargaining isn’t safe in the US because state-level politics stories don’t often make national news. And queer people aren’t suddenly not in a civil rights battle for their very lives because you didn’t hear about a transwoman’s murder or a gay teen’s suicide or yet another damn couple who can’t get married.

The only way to get around the reality of agenda setting (which is sometimes about political agenda; sometimes about racism, sexism or homophobia; sometimes about dollars; and sometimes about an evening news program only having thirty minutes or a newspaper only having so many pages) is to do your own agenda setting which means varying your news sources as much as possible. You won’t catch everything, but you’ll catch a much broader view.

Meanwhile, I? Have dozens of issues I want to write to you about here, but I’m struggling a little at finding the interval to do so today.

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6 Responses to “news, agenda setting, and you”

  1. Anton March 11, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

    I saw some snarky comments about people caring about Maru’s safety earlier today. But really, as a person with cats and one who has tried to crate a half dozen during a tornado, I value the inherent human connection of one pet owner with a rather famous cat posting an entry showing the carrier and emergency bag packed. It’s strange to say a story about a cat is a humanizing element, but it is.

    I meanwhile continue to freak out about Fukushima and the reactor because that’s my worst nightmare.

    It feels like we will never ever get a break from the news lately. It feels like everything is on fire.

    • RM March 11, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

      If people’s concern for that cat provokes more awareness and more people helping, then go Maru.

      • Anton March 11, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

        Maru and his owner are pretty much the only people I know in Japan right now. (As much as I know a cat on the internet.) My friend John moved back to the States last year. But if there was ever an adorable internet mascot to help inspire fund raising for disaster relief, it should be Maru.

  2. Nicoli Dominn March 11, 2011 at 7:01 pm #

    It’s sort of morbidly funny that everything you said here is so obviously true, and yet there are people who really do believe an issue ceases to be an issue once their news sources or other people stop talking about it. Then again, just because people aren’t talking about it doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about it, so I’m not going to assume they’ve forgotten that issues still exist.

    I was going to relate this to a whole bunch of parental anecdotes, but those are needlessly painful to hear or read about, so I’ll spare you.

  3. C.A. Young March 13, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    This has been a big frustration for me of late. I’m not a one-man Reuters. I can’t know everything, or blog everything, or boost everything. So things — things I care about, worry about — get left out all the time.

    I feel bad about it a lot. The knee-jerk answer (which is to blog more, and in more depth) isn’t a realistic one for me. I have to trust that others are going to pick up the things I drop, and that scares me.

    • RM March 13, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

      The other question also becomes, “what does anyone really need to know?”

      Do we need to know minute by minute contradictory rumours about the Japanese nuclear reactors? No. We don’t. Even the people there don’t. More data isn’t necessarily good data.

      Where this gets particularly confusing, and you sort of allude to this is, what do you do if you’re an activist, if there is a difference that can be made? How do you kepe Wisconsin in focus or gay marriage or human rights abuses in focus in the face of events (like the situation in Japan) where witnessing is vitally import, but arguably has little impact beyond enforcing shared humanity (which isn’t unimportant, of course)?

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