An excerpt from
What Is Happening to News
The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism
by Jack Fuller
The Two Searchlights
We are getting close to a neuroscience-based answer to the question why professionally undisciplined purveyors of news are gaining while adherents to the Standard Model of Professional Journalism decline. There are many surface explanations, the most mechanical of which is that mass media had only one way to go in the face of upstart competitors—down. But the change in the way people take in news has been so dramatic that something more powerful must be at work. Neuroscience points us toward such a force: The effect of message immersion on human brains that evolved in response to a very different information environment.
Not that the information environment on the African savannah for our ancient ancestors was without challenges. Their world teemed with activity, some of which provided an opportunity for sustenance and some of which threatened death. There was conversation, of course, but personal messages did not fly in constantly from the ether, disembodied from social interaction and face-to-face indicators of trust, coming from anybody or nobody. None of our ancestors, not even those as recent as our World War II generation parents or grandparents, came of age inundated by messages the way nearly every American child is today. And it isn’t only the children. Gahan Wilson captured the sense of our time in a cartoon in the New Yorker. It depicted a group of commuters grimacing with terminal annoyance as one man looks out the window at a billboard advertising sofas and says excitedly on his cell phone, “Now we’re passing by a great big sign urging us to buy sofas!”
We are not the first era to sense that distraction has altered our ability to think. Here is Lippmann from 1921: “If the beat of a metronome will depress intelligence [a conclusion of a psychological experiment of that time], what do eight or twelve hours of noise, odor, and heat in a factory, or day upon day among chattering typewriters and telephone bells and slamming doors, do to the political judgments formed on the basis of newspapers read in streetcars and subways?”
Today’s distraction is not heedless of us, like noise in a factory. Today it calls our name. This makes today’s messages very difficult to tune out. We carry instruments that allow anyone who knows our telephone number or e-mail address to beckon us. Whether by choice of inadvertence, we tell computers what interests us, and they shoot answers our way, barbed with this knowledge.
Here’s a day in the life in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The subject is a middle-aged business professional who cannot keep up with her children’s electronic literacy, though her work has pushed her into the digital world deeper than she would ever have imagined:
Wake up to clock radio blaring the latest weather report. Radio in bathroom continues with the latest news. Bundle children into the car pool. Finish the first cup of coffee while taking a quick look at the newspaper as the television on the counter delivers the morning weather and traffic reports. Walk to the garage and turn on car radio tuned to National Public Radio—voices talking, talking, talking, talking. Leave car at railroad station and wait for train. Put iPod earbuds in and listen to an audiobook on becoming a better manager. Idly stare at the billboards on the platform until the train rolls up. In the train, look over at seatmate’s paper. The man in the next seat is talking so loudly on his cell phone that it bleeds right through the earbuds and into the audiobook. Blackberry vibrates. First e-mail of the day. Pulling the device from its holster, notice that fifty e-mails have backed up overnight from satellite offices abroad. Spend commute going through them and answering the ones that require it. Blackberry plays electronic version of Bach, signaling that someone is calling. The number of the incoming call is unfamiliar, but it might be important. Remove earbuds and take the call, which turns out to be from a computer, trying to sell an extended auto warranty. Hang up, irritated. On the bus ride to the office write and send several e-mails. Eyes barely light on the ads on the cards above the windows.
In the office, piles of documents to review. Pink “While You Were Out” slips with telephone calls to return. But not as many as there once would have been. Now people just send you a message whenever they please and expect you to respond immediately. They don’t even have to get past the secretary. Blackberry plays Bach, disregarded this time. Let them leave a voice-mail message. More incoming e-mail rings a chime on the computer. Front screen arrays the latest news. The top item is from two minutes ago, an earthquake on an island in Indonesia. Read first sentence. Another item tells of a leadership change at a customer company Google is programmed to track. Read all three paragraphs. Make mental note to call contact at the company to get the latest gossip about what it all means.
The day proceeds: e-mail, documents, phone calls; phone calls, documents, e-mails. And meetings, meetings, meetings, some with people she knows, some with people she has never seen before and will probably never see again. During conference calls, put phone on mute, click on Amazon, which suggests several new releases. Buy one of them. Jump to Google News, where the newest news again is at the top, only a few minutes old, ten dead in a fire in an apartment building in another state. E-mail arrives announcing the touring schedule of favorite singer. Click over to calendar to check the date then buy a pair of tickets online. Meeting drones on. Hear own name and, disoriented, fumble way out of mute.
At the end of the day, ride down in the elevator looking at the screen that alternates bits of information on the markets with advertisements. Running behind, hail taxi. Screen on the back of the front seat is talking. Touch it to make it stop, without success.
Train is late, so stop in a friendly place for a glass of wine. Two televisions are on, each tuned to a different all-news station. Anchors seem very angry. Train finally arrives. Sit down, and within minutes the man in the next seat begins speaking into a cell phone with a voice as sharp as a blade.
On the way home from the train station, gas up the car as the screen above the pump greets you and plays some ads. Stop by the grocery store where a screen at the checkout line features cooking tips and more ads.
Home at last. Find note from son saying he has gone to hockey practice with a friend. Daughter’s ride to dance lessons was already arranged. Husband has dinner meeting downtown. They’ll all be gone at least until nine. Finally a little peace. Radio on, cook a microwave dinner, then go to the family room. Turn on flat-panel High Def TV. National Geographic Channel. An ad. Fire up laptop with its WiFi connection to the router the kids set up. Look at Google News again as the flat-panel TV screen cuts to an arresting image of lions tearing apart a wildebeest on the African savannah.
The Inundated Brain
In his 1964 book Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan famously proclaimed that the medium is the message. Though McLuhan said a lot of preposterous things in his time, he was right about this: The nature of the medium can be a more powerful force in the world than the content of the messages that pass through it.
Today it is not only the medium that is the message; it is the media altogether, the ways that messages from everywhere pound away at the senses, trying to force their way into our ancient brains. A former executive of Microsoft and Apple called ours an era of “continuous partial attention.” One critic described the condition in which this leaves us as a “state of distracted absorption.”
There are actually three types of attention: First, the kind that is driven by conscious, high-level concentration guided by the executive systems of the brain. If you are still with me, it is probably because you are engaged in this kind of attention. Second, stimulus-driven attention of the sort that occurs when a snake slithers out of the grass in front of you. The third type of attention is arousal, which is different from the other two types because it does not focus on anything in particular. It is a general heightening of perception and the feeling of awareness. It can change from moment to moment or stay stable for long periods. When it reaches a certain level, we call arousal stress.
The principal way our brains sort out, find a focus, and make initial sense of the bombardment is through our emotional systems. This happens continuously. As one student of the brain put it, even before we become conscious of a sense perception, “the amygdala has already branded it with a raw emotional valence somewhere along the continuum from mildly interesting to ‘oh my God!’”
The greater the bombardment, the more that emotion comes into play. A fancier way of saying this is that certain kinds of cognitive challenge produce emotional response. Not only are reason and emotion not separated, but challenges to our reasoning brain make us more emotionally aroused. It certainly would have seemed odd to Plato that the more one is called upon to exercise the parts of the mind that he believed should dominate, the more the parts he feared kick into action.
Even before it is given special cognitive challenges, our limited capacity brain has a daunting job to do. Here is one scholar’s vivid description: “The brain’s task is to guide the body it controls through a world of shifting conditions and sudden surprises, so it must gather information from the world and use it swiftly … to stay one step ahead of disaster. … The processes responsible for executing this are spatially distributed in a large brain with no central node, and the communication between regions of this brain is relatively slow; electrochemical nerve impulses travel thousands of times slower than … electric signals through wires.” Who was it who told you that you only use 10 percent of your brainpower?
When the mind working on a problem encounters distraction, time pressure, or too much information, the brain’s daunting task becomes much harder. It needs a referee to sort out the demands on its capacity. Emotions come to the fore. The more brain processing a task requires, the more likely emotion will affect judgment. The greater the challenge, the greater the emotional arousal. Interruption, which has become a way of life, can cause arousal all by itself. Wait. There’s your Blackberry buzzing again!
Time pressure alone also increases cognitive challenge and emotional response. Some studies have shown that when given tasks under severe deadlines, people use more negative information—which suggests that negative emotions are in play—than when doing the same task without being time pressured. Multitasking and information overload, too, increase the challenge to the brain’s processing resources. And when a person’s information processing capacity is stressed through information overload or multitasking, she is more likely to rely on emotional cues and use social stereotypes in making decisions about another person.
So predictable is emotional response to cognitive challenge that one of the ways brain researchers induce emotions in their subjects is to give them demanding thinking tasks. The tasks can be such things as bedeviling anagrams. Even better are anagrams that have no solutions. The latter combine cognitive challenge with powerlessness to deal with the situation, which is another strong producer of emotional response. (Think of an e-mail that comes in from your boss requiring an immediate response, just before your wireless network goes dead.)
There actually have been video games specially designed to induce emotion through cognitive challenge. One of these is called the Geneva Appraisal Manipulation Environment (GAME, naturally). In it a player’s agent has to fight or flee from enemies through a series of mazes. Researchers using GAME can program it to ratchet up and down the amount of cognitive processing under time pressure a subject needs to deploy.
The linkage between cognition and emotion shows up in experiments using what is called the Stroop task. When an experimenter flashed before the eyes of subjects with anxiety problems different colored words, some of whose meanings were anxiety laden and others neutral, the subjects were slower to name the color of the emotional words. The meaning of an emotional word seemed to pull the subject’s attention away from her task, which was simply to identify the colors. Another experiment using something similar to the Stroop task with normal subjects indicated that emotional words seemed similarly to draw attention away from the cognitive work at hand.
I know of no empirical research that goes directly to the question of the effect message inundation has on the way people take in news today, so the explanation of audience behavior I am offering here is in the nature of inference and hypothesis. But the more you immerse yourself in the world of GAME and Stroop tasks, difficult anagrams, multiple reasoning tasks, and distraction, the more it feels like the world we now inhabit.
Consider the day I was taking notes on one of the neuroscience pieces I just referred to. The external hard drive holding all the music I had fed into it for my iPod had crashed, and so I was copying CDs to a new hard drive. As I was sitting at my desk trying to make sure every word and comma in a quotation I was writing down on a note card was correct, the computer periodically made noises that told me the transfer of one CD was finished and it was time to put in another. (Yes, I was taking notes by hand and listening to music on CDs. I confess.) Oh, and then my wife called from Ecuador where she was trying to get a flight home after an airplane (fortunately not hers) slid to an emergency stop on the Quito airport runway and got stuck there. She was calling me on a cell phone as she rode in a van from Quito to Guayaquil, where the airport was open. Earlier she had called while scrambling for a ride to Guayaquil to ask that I check with American Airlines to see about her alternatives. I relayed what I had learned then went back to the note taking and music transfer. Most of this could not have occurred even a decade previous. Of course, back then I would have been writing longhand on note cards just as I was doing that day. But my wife would not have been able to call from a van in Ecuador on a cell phone. I would not have been loading CDs into my computer for transfer to my iPod.
We have gotten so used to distraction that I don’t think I would even have noticed it if I hadn’t been thinking about the brain under stress. In fact, it is simply the way we live. A few days later I saw a woman exercising on a step machine, consulting MSNBC on a muted TV with closed captioning while writing checks and talking on a cell phone. Lying under her checkbook was a magazine open to some article or another.
Scarcity of information processing resources in the working memory makes us particularly vulnerable to distraction. Working memory, again, is like random access memory on a computer, and in the human brain it is very limited, which is why trying to remember for a short period of time much more than a telephone number is very difficult. When a person performs tasks that load up the working memory, they are more easily distracted. That explains why multitaskers are more likely to be emotionally aroused.
Swedish neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg has focused on the question whether humans can increase the capacity of their working memory and make themselves less subject to distraction. After all, we know that the brain is plastic. Most parts of it can and do learn. This would be the only real basis for the hopeful conjecture that young people who have grown up message immersed actually can do multiple tasks better than their elders, really can watch television while text messaging their friends and using the Web as a research tool for a homework assignment they are writing on their laptop.
Klingberg’s research suggests, however, that with a lot of effort and proper pedagogy, working memory can improve by only about 20 percent. That seven-digit telephone number can expand to perhaps eight or nine before it becomes hard to remember. This learning does not occur spontaneously. It requires the right teaching method plus time, practice, and mental discipline. Meanwhile, the demands on working memory are increasing faster than the mind, even under the best conditions, can adapt.
“You are very possibly 10 per cent better at talking on the phone while erasing spam today than you were three years ago,” Klingberg wrote, “On the other hand, the number of e-mails you receive per day has probably shot up 200 per cent.”
I have heard some people suggest that through natural selection our brains will evolve the capacity to handle the demands we are now putting on them. Maybe, but not in any time period worth imagining. Remember that natural selection happens over multiple generations and only when an adaptation confers an advantage in the spreading of one’s genes. So even if a fortuitous mutation comes along that expands working memory and this somehow helps those who possess it survive and procreate, a child of today would have to pass it on to her children, who would pass it on to their children, who would pass it on to their children, who would pass it on to their children. … This is no way to meet journalism’s current crisis.
Stimulus-driven attention will pull at us more and more as the information environment gets richer. This means that we will be more and more attentive to emotionally charged messages, which are particularly effective for the purpose. One group of brain researchers put it this way, “Humans have an evolutionarily determined readiness to let their attention be captured automatically by emotionally significant stimuli lurking in the psychological darkness outside the spotlight of conscious attention.”
There is that searchlight again, the internal one that Merleau-Ponty said sent its beam outward through the sense organs. As we have seen, there is a lot of competition inside the brain for use of that searchlight. And at any moment the emotions have the power to take control.
The Other Searchlight
Concerned folks both inside and outside journalism have engaged in quite a lot of discussion about the economic challenge the radically changing information environment has created for traditional news media, particularly newspapers. There have been numerous examinations of ways the existing advertising and reader revenue-based business model could be fixed or replaced with some form of philanthropic or government subsidy. But with audience attitudes and behavior changing as dramatically as they are, getting funding to support the production of serious journalism is only part of the problem.
Journalism is a very practical affair. For one thing, it plays an important role in keeping those most actively engaged in public policy informed about things that are pertinent to the effort. In this regard, a journalism that appeals to a relatively small, elite audience can be important. But journalism is also the way the wider public learns of the world outside its ken. The news shapes public opinion, which ultimately shapes public decision making. It does this, that is, if the public pays attention to it. So if journalism is to serve its fundamental social mission—through whatever medium—it needs not only to be available but to get through to a large portion of the public. Changing the business model without changing the way journalism presents itself will not accomplish the mission.
A 2009 article in the Guardian (U.K.) by law professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres is a useful example of the kind of ideas serious people put forward for saving journalism. It proposed that democracies around the world create national endowments for journalism to give financial support for investigative reporting. The authors recognized the double nature of the challenge. Without the profit motive, they wrote, “the endowments will pursue their own agendas without paying much attention to the issues that the public really cares about.” To get around this, while avoiding the obvious danger of government deciding what investigations to fund, money from the national endowments would be allocated “on a strict mathematical formula based on the number of citizens who actually read their reports on news sites.”
They recognized that readers “may flock to sensationalist tabloids that will also qualify for grants for their ‘investigations.’” But they did not seem to realize how very difficult it is to get people to read investigative reports about complex subjects, especially the kind that a news organization has to unravel over time, as the Washington Post did with Watergate. I’m afraid that even Watergate, let alone less epic investigations, might have died aborning for insufficient national endowment funding under the Ackerman-Ayres rules.
Ever since newspapers gave up being supported by political parties about two centuries ago, the need to attract and hold an audience has been the hand on Lippmann’s searchlight of the press as it chooses what to illuminate and what to leave in shadows. “It is a problem of provoking feeling in the reader,” Lippmann wrote, “of inducing him to feel a sense of personal identification with the stories he is reading. News which does not offer this opportunity cannot appeal to a wide audience.” The more the competition, the harder the problem.
As the number of competing newspapers declined in the second half of the twentieth century, before the explosion of choice that cable television offered, the Standard Model of Professional Journalism rose to the apex of its influence. This was the Golden Age that many journalists later looked back to longingly. In even the largest cities of the United States the sources of general news consisted of, at most, a few daily newspapers, a few television stations, and a little news on the radio. In most medium-sized cities, there was only one newspaper. Moreover, in-home entertainment choices were also limited to only a few television stations, radio that was increasingly turning to popular music, and of course the now extinct phonograph.
The emergence of cable TV changed everything. In the beginning cable was known as Community Antenna Television (CATV). It offered remote rural communities access to broadcast signals that otherwise would not have reached it. In 1972 the business model of CATV started to evolve, thanks to a change in government regulation. Cable began to offer programming that was not already being broadcast. In 1975 HBO debuted. In 1976 Ted Turner’s superstation went up on satellite for national delivery via cable. His brainchild CNN debuted in 1980. This all happened at a time when total newspaper daily circulation remained for a period at its highest plateau. Ten years later, as cable penetration soared, daily circulation began a decline from which it never recovered.
Cable did not change everything by increasing competition in news. It did so by offering alternatives to news. Political scientist Markus Prior has offered strong evidence that when TV viewers could only watch broadcast television and when the networks all programmed news in the same time slots, a lot of people watched the news simply because their only alternative was to watch nothing at all. Then cable came along, offering these marginal news consumers entertainment programming during the news hours. The broadcast news audience quickly began to drop as the proportion of homes with cable rose. “Ironically,” Prior wrote, “the share of politically uninformed people has risen since we entered the so-called ‘information age.’”
At the Tribune we struggled to understand why single copy sales of the paper (on newsstands, in convenience stores and train stations, and so forth) had gone on a long decline even as home delivery sales were holding up. The whole newspaper industry was suffering the same thing. Occasionally the trend would reverse itself sharply, such as during the Persian Gulf War or whenever Michael Jordan was leading the Bulls through the playoffs to an NBA championship. The reason for this seemed obvious. News sells newspapers. But why news that everyone had already watched on television?
I recall a meeting in which one of our senior executives noted that the single copy decline seemed to have occurred as household penetration of cable TV rose. Could this have been the X factor that explained our problem?
I could not see it. CNN’s regular audience in our circulation area was tiny. I did not believe it could possibly have been making a significant difference in our sales.
Now I think that senior executive was onto something, and Prior’s work shows why. In the pre-cable era, Prior argued, large numbers of people got exposure to news, just because it was on. They came to know about public affairs through by-product learning; they learned without meaning to. Other researchers’ work tends to support this. One useful study found television more successful in communicating information that the audience is not already interested in, while newspapers and magazines are better at communicating information about subjects the audience is interested in. The by-product learning effect changed the political behavior of people with marginal interest in news, Prior argued. By-product learning probably also engaged them with the news enough to pick up the paper from time to time at the newsstand. But as cable television’s reach grew, so did the alternatives to watching the news, thus the by-product learning declined, and with it their inclination to buy a newspaper.
In Prior’s view there was nothing journalists and news organizations could do about this. Many have tried. Long-form documentary narratives of true crime stories became a staple on television. Some have included dramatic re-creations of events with actors in the roles of real people. When USA Today had its debut, it quite obviously aimed to ape television in its approach. News about popular entertainment increased dramatically on television and in newspapers. Comedians began delivering the news on cable’s Comedy Channel. Then cable news channels hired their own comedians.
What we have seen is the restless searchlight flitting around trying to find whatever it can to attract the folks who just aren’t interested in news and now have lots of alternatives. According to Prior, it is getting harder. The rise of the Internet offers “plentiful distraction to those who want to avoid the news, thereby contributing to an increasing knowledge gap.”
Competition’s Darker Side
In 1947 a distinguished commission chaired by University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins and including First Amendment scholar Zechariah Chaffee, Jr.; poet, lawyer, and former Assistant Secretary of State Archibald MacLeish; theologian Reinhold Niebuhr; and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger issued a report entitled A Free and Responsible Press. It examined the question: Is the freedom of the press in danger? Its answer: Yes, because the press is too concentrated and its behavior has been so bad that it invites government regulation.
Though the Hutchins Commission report is largely unread today, its focus on concentration of media power has been a staple ever since, both among professional journalists and nonjournalists worried about the relationship between the news media and our system of government. Even as the Internet began to offer people both instantaneous access to news reports from all over the planet and the ability to make their contribution available to everyone with a computer and a modem, people still talked about news media concentration. I don’t know how many times—at dinner parties, receptions, during the question-and-answer period after speeches—I was asked how seriously I viewed the problem of news media power. I always explained that from my point of view, it looked as though whatever power traditional news media once had was being shattered into a million shards. I doubt that I ever persuaded a single person. I’m sure most thought that I was just saying this because I was part of the problem.
At one point I testified before a committee of Congress in favor of the repeal of the Federal Communications Commission rule preventing newspapers and broadcast channels in the same community to be owned by the same person or corporation. My argument referred to independent evaluations showing that local television news on cross-ownership stations (that had been grandfathered when the ban went into effect) was generally better than the news on other stations. I noted that nobody had offered any evidence that the newspaper-owned television stations had adopted the editorial opinions of the newspapers. (After all, the news department of most newspapers, true to the Standard Model, did not even themselves adopt the paper’s editorial page position). And I asked why, with the whole media world in turmoil and newspapers under economic threat, only newspapers were hobbled by a rule that inhibited their ability to find cost and revenue advantages. Many years later, after newspaper economics collapsed and papers began going out of business, the cross-ownership ban remained on the books.
It has become clearer and clearer that the Hutchins Commission’s concern, whatever merit it may have had in 1947, is the least of our problems in the twenty-first century. Perhaps people inside and outside of journalism are ready now to recognize that rapidly increasing competition has been the enemy of disinterested, unemotional, Standard Model journalism.
Two academic economists have built a sophisticated mathematical model of the behavior of rational readers and used it to predict how rational news businesses would respond under various competitive conditions. It showed that in a competitive market, news media would all slant in the same direction when the audience shared common beliefs but slant toward specific segments of public opinion when public beliefs diverged significantly. “Generally speaking,” they wrote, “competition forces newspapers to cater to the prejudices of their readers, and greater competition typically results in more aggressive catering to such prejudices.”
In a provocative front page article in the New York Times Book Review, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, a leader of the law and economics movement, made a similar argument. Political polarization in news reporting, he wrote, is “a consequence of changes not in underlying political opinions but in costs, specifically the falling costs of new entrants” to the news market. He called an increase in sensationalism in reporting “a parallel phenomenon.”
This would not have had as much bite, had not critics from within journalism’s professional ranks been complaining more and more loudly about just the phenomena that Posner was explaining. The judge had a painful message for those critics as well: “Journalists express dismay that bottom-line pressures are reducing the quality of news coverage. What this actually means is that when competition is intense, providers of a service are forced to give the consumer what he or she wants, not what they, as proud professionals, think the consumer should want, or more bluntly, what they want.”
This might have been easier to take had there not been evidence on mainstream media’s own Web sites of what consumers really seemed to want. A particularly extreme example: on the Los Angeles Times’ Web site, a story about the world’s ugliest dog ranked among the top ten most looked-at items for all of 2005.
If a Hutchins Commission were beginning its work in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it would have to ask how a “free and responsible press” is possible in a radically fragmented, message-immersed information environment. The commission members would be forced to conclude that the “responsible” part has become much harder, that some of the news disciplines in the Standard Model can thrive only in conditions of relatively low competition, and that the news media not only have to figure out new ways to get important information through to people who are increasingly difficult to reach but also to find new ways to discipline themselves as they try.
Where the Lights Converge
So the two searchlights restlessly play across the landscape. One is the searchlight of the media looking for anything that will attract the attention of an audience. The other is the searchlight of the audience members scanning a cluttered and intrusive environment for something that seems important enough to attend to. The interplay of these two processes explains a good deal of what has been happening in the way news is presented and received.
There is nothing new about people trying to get attention by appealing to the emotions. Read Greek tragedy. Read the turn of the twentieth century’s yellow press, of which Lippmann complained, “Can anything be heard in the hubbub that does not shriek, or be seen in the general glare that does not flash like an electric sign?”
When I was a boy in the mid-1950s and we finally got a television, I used to watch a show called The Best of MGM. One of the movies that I’ve never forgotten, for reasons that will soon become apparent, was The Hucksters with Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr. Here is one of the opening scenes, as narrated in the book on which the movie was based. It is set in the plush boardroom of a New York advertising agency:
In the expressive silence, Mr. Evans raised his straw-covered head once more, hawked and spit on the mahogany board table.
No one spoke. Very deliberately, he took the handkerchief out of his sleeve, wiped the spit off the table, and threw the handkerchief into a wastebasket.…
“Mr. Norman,” he said, shouting in a deep bass. “You have just seen me do a disgusting thing. Ugly word, spit. But you know, you’ll always remember what I just did.”
Then Mr. Evans leaned forward and whispered hoarsely, “Mr. Norman, if nobody remembers your brand, then you ain’t gonna sell any soap.”
Intense emotion, in this case disgust, drives a moment deeply, often indelibly into the memory. I remember exactly where I was when I learned that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. But I do not remember where I was the day I heard that President Obama’s economic stimulus plan passed. Emotion makes you pay attention. “Taut silence.” Emotion makes you remember. “If nobody remembers your brand, then you ain’t gonna sell any soap.”
The increase in competition for people’s attention has caused competitors to become more and more intense in their pursuit of the vivid. It is an emotional arms race out there. Meanwhile, inside our heads distraction, information overload, time pressure, and multitasking cause emotional arousal. An emotionally aroused brain is more likely to be drawn to emotionally charged stimuli. The aroused brain might be drawn to a neo-populist commentator railing about illegal immigration, a film clip of an explosion ripping, or—turning to humor to regulate a surfeit of emotion—a comedian delivering a satire on the day’s news.
Arousal comes and goes. If you have ever watched the way a baby, when presented with a familiar brightly colored object, rather quickly loses interest in it, you have seen in its most basic form the mechanism sometimes known as habituation. Similarly, you probably have experienced the way food loses its flavor as you eat more of it in the course of a meal.
This simply intensifies the arms race. Visual media have more weapons at their disposal than print. Not all of them are obvious. For example, notice how little time each shot in most movies lasts today. A few seconds. Compare this with films made even a decade or two ago. You often hear this described as a response to our shortened attention span. A better explanation is that rapid cutting takes advantage of our brain’s reflex to orient toward movement. Film and TV makers, faced with increased competition, are simply making use of our ancient attention systems. Count on the inner fish to go for a darting lure.
Let’s go back to the competition metaphor. Inside the brain there is competition for scarce information processing resources. When the competition gets fierce, the emotions take control and direct resources to matters that are important to a person’s goals—from the basic biological goals of survival and procreation right on up to her highest aspirations, such as the desire to do work of value or to be brave or loving.
Out in the external environment in which the brain functions, there is intense competition, too, for the very same thing—the brain’s information processing resources. The competition produces a torrent of messages—from advertisers, media, family and friends, and business associates sending e-mail, messaging, tweeting, or just calling on the cell phone. There is competition among music producers, among movie studios, among video game makers, among news organizations. Everybody wants a piece of you.
Worse, the two dimensions of competition—inside and outside the brain—feed on one another: At the same time that the increasing demands on our old brains make us more vulnerable to emotional presentation, the increasing competition among media leads them to ratchet up the emotion. Television featuring nature programming, such as the National Geographic Channel and the Discovery Channel, provide a good example of this. One would expect them to appeal to a more thoughtful viewer, a viewer deeply and broadly interested in the diversity of the natural world. But the mix of nature shows on even those channels disproportionately features predators, especially those that threaten humans.
Again, not everyone is equally vulnerable to the use of emotion as an attention-getter. Some people seem almost immune, or at least are immune with respect to some kinds of information. A clinical neurologist is not likely to be deeply engaged by a TV show weeping over the sorrows of Alzheimer’s disease. An economist is probably not going to read news stories about the effect of free trade on workers with the same anger and fear that a factory worker does, because she is not personally threatened and because she understands the larger economic context of the policy. Nor is anybody equally vulnerable to emotional appeals at all times. If I have had a bad day or am very tired, I’m more likely to be drawn deeply into a television show that on a better day might strike me as melodramatic.
Some people appear drawn to emotional arousal the way certain folks are drawn to danger, and perhaps for the same reason. People like roller coasters just as they like horror movies, because under certain circumstances intense emotion can be pleasurable. The intensity of overload-driven arousal—as in a video game—can become addictive, as most teenage boys will be glad to explain.
It is all a matter of averages. If you imagine the population’s emotional arousal level and thus responsiveness to emotional stimuli to be represented by a bell curve distribution, it is not that all audience members who are unresponsive to emotional presentation have disappeared. What has happened is that the center of the curve is shifting in the direction of more responsiveness. Michael Schudson observed that during much of the twentieth century newspapers roughly divided between what he called a “story” model and an “information” model. The New York Times exemplified the information model—with quite strict adherence to the Standard journalistic disciplines. The New York Daily News exemplified the story model, with its emotional blare and emphasis on human interest. In the past the story model was identified with the middle and working classes while the information model was identified with the more educated class. Today this class identification has broken down. People of all educational attainment levels watch (and admit to watching) cable news shows that follow the story model with a vengeance. Emotional presentation succeeds across all class lines and has attained wide legitimacy. The curve has shifted toward emotional presentation. As bandwidth increases and the cost of computing drops, message immersion will continue to increase, and with it a further shift of the curve. We may only be at the beginning of the process.
The fact that you can’t find a new Walter Cronkite on television today is no fluke. The dispassionate approach embedded in the Standard Model of Professional Journalism and embodied by Cronkite does not attract the audience that it used to. Walter Cronkite was lucky to have worked when he did. (And we are lucky, too, for he helped the country through some very difficult times.) Today he would be cancelled. So, by the way, would Walter Lippmann.