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date: 19 November 2017

Summary and Keywords

Media coverage does not ebb and flow. Rather, media coverage rapidly moves from crisis to stasis and back again. The result of these attention dynamics is news reporting that is disproportional to the breadth and pace of policy problems in the world, where some balloon in the news beyond expectations and others fade quickly (or never make the news at all). These patterns of news coverage result from the powerful role that momentum plays in the news-generation process. Forces of positive feedback drive news outlets to chase each new hot story quickly, while negative feedback forces drive news outlets to stay locked onto a hot story at hand. Together, these forces drive news coverage to lurch and fixate, lurch and fixate, again and again. Thus, although previous research has conceived of the news-generation process functioning either as a “patrol” system (where news outlets act as sentinels, tracking each policy problem as it unfolds in the world) or as an “alarm” system (where news outlets move in quick bursts from one policy problem to the next, with little to no in-depth coverage), both these previous models tell only half the story. Rather, the news-generation process is best understood through the alarm/patrol hybrid model, where news outlets often lurch from one hot item to the next but sometimes become entrenched in an unfolding storyline. The alarm/patrol hybrid model helps explain the particular phenomenon of “media storms” that can occur, where a sudden surge in media attention can vault a previously ignored issue into the center of public and political attention; think of the Catholic priest abuse scandal, or the scene in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown’s death. The lurching/fixating dynamics of media attention have far-ranging implications for citizen information and political response, contributing to a wider system of disproportionate information processing where some topics are attended to and others are largely ignored. In particular, because policymakers take so many of their cues from the news, it is likely the case that the lurching/fixating patterns of our media system exacerbate the punctuated patterns of government in turn.

Keywords: media, news, attention dynamics, agenda-setting, punctuated equilibrium, alarm, patrol

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