The peril of exhaustion

Opinion by Winston Shi
Oct. 26, 2014, 9:49 p.m.

The hit TV show House of Cards thought it was joking when its crusading Internet journalists talked about a “24-minute news cycle.” Of course, seeing as many people will take anything House of Cards says seriously – the show is often described in China as a true-to-life expose of American politics – perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the 24-minute news cycle as Hollywood banter. Rather, in a world where the demand for news always seems to outstrip the amount of actual news that exists, it’s hard not to say that the show wasn’t entirely wrong.

In fact, there’s certainly a lot of truth to the idea of 24-minute news – we expect our news fast, and we expect a lot of it. I’ve written before that sports media can often seem like an all-consuming monster, always demanding new storylines and new ideas and new outrageous things to cover. But although consumers demand changes in the news cycle, a new news cycle also makes new demands of the people that use it. The increasing pace, availability and scope of modern media subtly shapes our perceptions of what news is.

We’re all familiar with the newfound speed with which storylines can disappear. But the expectations of rapid change that the 24-minute news cycle engenders make the biggest headlines seem bigger than ever – so much so, in fact, that news seems to be a world in which most issues don’t get commentary and the ones that do get far too much of it. Constantly changing headlines and rapidly shifting notions of what “news” consists of make it all the clearer and all the more irritating when a news story goes on for days. After the constant coverage of the Malaysia Airlines disasters, the first thing that comes to mind when most Americans think of “Malaysia Airlines” is exhaustion from the media blitz, not “How could this have happened?”

Our fixation on the fact that disaster coverage goes on for so long also distracts us from the true importance of the issues in the news. Let’s take the second Malaysia Airlines disaster as an example – it became a punchline, even though it raises some very important questions, such as How does one airline have two high-profile disasters in just 131 days and What sort of deviousness or irrationality or just plain stupidity caused a commercial airliner to get shot down over Ukraine? Frame these crashes in this way, and we should be wondering why there wasn’t enough coverage of the disasters, not why there was so much.

The big news story these days is Ebola. It’s a disease that has killed one person in the United States so far and infected three others. On news media, it’s close to everpresent; but I’ve also heard the point being made – and fairly often at that – that since Ebola’s total death toll isn’t very high, it’s really not worth the sort of scrutiny and coverage that it has thus far attracted. Certainly it’s a very divisive issue, with a large part of the country demanding up-to-the-minute updates on the Ebola crisis and another large part of the country wishing that the issue would simply go away. And it doesn’t help that in a brutally competitive election season, Ebola is an issue that has become politically charged.

But for worriers and detractors alike, lost in the hubbub of Ebola are the big questions that the disease does in fact raise. The epidemic has been going on for a while now – what was the tipping point that made it a news story? A properly coordinated and funded response to Ebola in West Africa could have severely limited its spread close to its outset; what made us not really care then, and what makes us care now? And what exactly makes Ebola as a disease so compelling when even canonically “super-rare” diseases like Guillain-Barre (the sort only found with regularity on House, M.D.) are more prevalent and common killers like AIDS are more deadly? Perhaps it’s the fact that Ebola seems like a missed opportunity, a clear example of people dropping the ball – this could have been “stopped,” people say, but it wasn’t. But we don’t even know the questions we are asking, or if we’re asking any questions at all. The Ebola crisis raises valid questions, but exhausted with our new media cycle, we aren’t asking those questions. And when the media does ask those questions, they’re lost in a sea of noise.

Exhaustion with the media cycle may be nothing new, but it’s certainly not being helped by the new tools of communication that are now available to us. My point is not to complain about interest in the Ebola crisis, or lack thereof, but rather to emphasize the fact that Ebola is an issue on which many people don’t seem to have perspective. It’s good to get the news, but when we get an issue like Ebola that demands long-term coverage, we also need to demand coverage that is tailored for the long term: We need to carve out moments to stop and think about what the news actually means.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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