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Social Problems Everywhere and No Attention to Spare

–Guest by Audrey Payne, American University graduate student.

It seems like there are so many problems discussed in the media every day- public health, the environment, the economy, political protests…. Have you ever stopped to wonder why? Even more importantly, why do some issues tend to dominant media discussion while others remain third or fourth tier considerations?

The answer may seem obvious. Well, because some issues are important. Right? That may be true (to some), but as it turns out, the answer isn’t quite so simple. There are innumerable factors that contribute to why issues gain and maintain attention, and there have been academics who have wanted to answer these questions in –depth and have therefore studied cycles of attention. These people have developed models to explain why issues get attention- in the media, in the public sphere, and in the political arena, all raising interesting points.  

Setting the Media and Public Agenda

According to a 2005 review article by Maxwell McCombs, agenda-setting by the media influences why issues receive public interest. There are five stages of agenda-setting. The first stage is the model of basic agenda-setting effects, which states that media attention to certain issues transfers to public opinion and attention. The second stage is attribute agenda-setting, which means that not only are issues transferred to public attention by way of the media, but also, certain attributes of issues that are emphasized in media transfer in importance as well to public judgments. The third is the psychology of individuals, which states that people are affected to different degrees by the media, depending on their specific need for orientation to “what is important.” The fourth is the source of agenda-setting on the media, as media is classically homogeneous in content.

Journalists look to other journalists, especially elite journalists of publications such as the New York Times, to validate that their stories are newsworthy. Finally, the fifth is the consequences of agenda-setting on the public. According to McCombs, multiple lines of evidence across many studies suggests that agenda-setting by the media influences public opinion and attitudes, as opposed to the public influencing the media agenda.   

The Competition Among Social Problems

In a 1988 study by sociologists Steve Hilgartner and Charles Bosk, the authors compare issue attention to an ecological framework where issues are pitted against each other for public attention.  Issues actually compete with each other for attention and resources.  The majority of social problems, as defined as situations that are labeled as problematic in the arenas of public discourse and action, never break through to public attention. Those that do, tend to have a small gathering of interested groups keeping them in the public interest.

So why then, according to Hilgartner and Bosk, do some issues break through to public attention? The mechanism they explain can be defined in terms of “principles of selection,” which include the political, cultural, and institutional factors that influence whether the problem or issue will survive against the competition. 

This includes the competition for space, the need for drama and novelty (people love drama and novelty if you didn’t already notice), the danger of saturation, the rhythm of organizational life, cultural preoccupations, and political biases. In other words, a lot of different factors working at once.

For example, if an issue saturates the public space, attention to it will generally decline because people get bored. Then, competing issues can swoop in and steal the public attention. Culturally, issues that fit with broad cultural concerns, such as health will fare better.   Journalists play a part as well, in deciding what qualifies as news and what merits coverage. The journalist’s understanding of the issue also affects the way it’s framed, and therefore if people will pay attention to it. There are an endless number of factors that influence why an issue will peak the interest of the public at any given time, but you can bet it will depend on what other issues it has to compete against at that time.

Gaining Political Attention

Political scientists have tracked similar processes as Hilgartner and Bosk.  According to a 1976 study by Charles Cobb, Jennie Keith Ross, and Marc Ross, agenda building is defined as the process by which certain issues are brought to political attention in society.   Agenda building accounts for why certain policy issues come to exist on the political and public agenda. According to the study, issues are brought to attention by small, invested groups of the public. There are two types of agendas:  the public agenda, whereas some issues have achieved a high level of public interest, and the formal agenda, where decision makers have accepted certain issues for consideration in creating policy.

The authors came up with three possible scenarios as to why issues get attention in the public and formal agendas.  First, the public agenda is generally influenced by small interest groups and the public agenda can then influence the political agenda.   Second, issues can also arise in the formal agenda and then move to the public agenda.  Third, issues arise in government, and remain salient amongst policy makers without ever moving to the public agenda. These are three different scenarios, yet all depend on small groups of invested people.

Understanding the Competition for Attention Today

In addition to these historic models of issue attention, there’s something else to consider today: the role of new media. Although it is definitely still possible for a few big issues, like the economy and the election race, to dominate people’s attention, most other issues never leave the relatively small public arenas of their interest groups and engaged publics. Because the internet has led to so many choices in news mediums, such as blogs, social media, YouTube, and news Web sites, the public’s attention is becoming more and more scattered and difficult to attract.  

According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, half of Americans say they get their news through the recommendations of other people. However, stories still tend to come from traditional news sources, at least originally, then are passed on in other ways. The Pew study investigated how these news mediums affect the ways in which people get their news by looking at the top stories discussed and linked on the different media sites. Several trends were found. Each media platform seems to have its own “personality” and types of news stories that its authors tend to pass along. Bloggers tend to pass on stories with emotional merit or stories that align with people’s ideologies, as well as those that show political partisanship. Twitter, on the other hand, more often passes on breaking news stories and news about technology. YouTube is different still, with a focus on videos that pique curiosity and have a strong visual appeal.

Despite their differences in function and appeal, however, there is something that rings true on each new media platform.  Attention to stories in each medium is fleeting. Over half of all lead stories do not stay lead stories on social media for more than three days. On Twitter, over half of lead stories lose their place as “top stories” within 24 hours.

Back to the original question: why do some problems today dominate attention and why do some issues appear to be given far less priority? Apparently, based on these studies, they get attention because journalists, small interest groups, the government, and our social networks tell us they should. That being said though, those issues had better be more dramatic and entertaining than their competitors, because if not, we will either fail to perceive them as urgent or relevant, or our initial concern will quickly wane. There are a lot of social problems and issues out there, and we simply cannot pay attention to all of them. Especially for long.

–Guest post by Audrey Payne, an MA student in Public Communication at American University in Washington, D.C.  

Read other posts from Payne’s project team examining public attention to social problems such as famine as well posts from other project teams in her course on Public Communication Theory.

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Cobb, R.W., J.K. Ross and M.H. Ross (1976) ‘Agenda Building as a Comparative  Political Process’, American Political Science Review, 70(1): 126-138.

Hilgartner, S., & Bosk, C. L. (1988). The rise and fall of social problems: A public arenas model. American journal of Sociology, 94(7), 53-78. [PDF]

Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism (2011). New Media, Old Media. [HTML]

See Also:

Nisbet, M., & Huge, M. (2007). Where do science debates come from? Understanding attention cycles and framing. The media, the public, and agricultural biotechnology, 193–230. [PDF]


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