“Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution in the 1970’s began observing what he called “the issue attention cycle” in the American media. The cycle is: the news media and public ignore a serious problem for years; for some reason, they suddenly notice, declare it a crisis and concoct a solution; next they realize the problem will not be easily fixed and will be costly; they grow angry, then bored; finally, they resume ignoring the problem.” [DailySource]
The original Issue Attention Cycle was partially modified by Karen K. Petersen in her article for the Journal for Strategic Security in 2009.
Technical adjustments aside, there’s little to challenge the original assumption that modern American media is Alarmed, in Crisis mode, and then realizes the problem (usually of long standing) is not easily addressed much less immediately and cheaply solvable – and then we move on.
It may be time to resurrect the Issue Attention Cycle and give it more consideration as the news organizations plow onward and downward into more trivial and less informative media which passes for “news.”
One problem which we ought to think about is that of manufactured news. A media savvy group launches a “dramatic” press conference or releases sensational information. The press picks this up, charges into print or air, and when the dust settles there was really very little Gertrude Stein-ian “there there.” We have some recent examples.
Consider the assault on Planned Parenthood. A highly questionable group, organized for the purpose of attacking an organization which provides women’s health services (including abortions), releases heavily edited videos purporting to show illegal or immoral actions. We assume that news organizations will provide some filtration – some background research – on the origin, credibility, and trustworthiness, of information selected for print or broadcast.
In the Issue Attention Cycle the attack took on the aspects of “alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm” as breathless headlines and TV teasers touted new “discoveries” about Planned Parenthood activities. Those who were paying attention to some of the less sensationalized coverage quickly observed that the headlines didn’t match the reporting, which noted the lack of credibility of the accusers and the dismal nature of the video editing. The initial phase of the Issue Attention Cycle is bad enough, combined with the lack of filtration (or even fact checking) by the media makes it even more susceptible to manufactured news.
The obviously political and almost perfectly partisan coverage of the Clinton E-mails offers a second example of manufactured news. A bit of filtration by news media would have easily discovered that yes, Secretary Rice did use State Department e-mail – when she used e-mail at all, which was rarely [BusInsider]; and, Secretary Powell used a personal e-mail account in much the same way as did Secretary Clinton. [Media] However, there’s nothing like a perpetual fishing expedition to encourage the continuation of the “alarm and euphoric enthusiasm” stage of media attention. Other stories related to the use of e-mail by government officials weren’t covered in quite such a dramatic fashion. For example, the Bush White House “lost” some 22 million e-mails from 2003 to 2005:
“The e-mail controversy dates back to the Bush administration’s 2006 firing of the top federal prosecutors in nine cities. After congressional committees demanded the administration produce documents related to the firings, the White House said millions of e-mails might have been lost from its servers. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive sued over the issue in 2007, arguing the Bush administration violated federal laws that require presidential records to be preserved.” [CNN 2009]
However, without relatively constant references to the Bush e-mail issues – some related to the firing of 9 federal attorneys – the issue hit the “decline of intensity of interest” phase fairly quickly. Other e-mail and records controversies have not received the unfiltered attention the current media assigns to Secretary Clinton. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s e-mail record has key points in his timeline missing, such as during the 2000 election, the voter purges, the Elian Gonzales Case, and the Terry Schiavo controversy. [MJ] Reuters reported in 2011 that former Governor Mitt Romney spent nearly $100,000 in state funds to replace computers in an effort to keep his records private in 2007. In short, we might logically conclude that the “alarm and enthusiasm” phase will give way to the “decline of intensity of interest” stage proportionately to the willingness of the media to reprint or rebroadcast statements from interested politicians.
Now a warning? Remember, the issue cycle often begins with a situation presented as a full-blown crisis but actually represents a set of conditions which may have existed for years, or decades. This is illustrated by the discussion of police use of force, especially against people of color. Pro Publica reports:
Our examination involved detailed accounts of more than 12,000 police homicides stretching from 1980 to 2012 contained in the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report. The data, annually self-reported by hundreds of police departments across the country, confirms some assumptions, runs counter to others, and adds nuance to a wide range of questions about the use of deadly police force.
Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater…
Pro Publica did the analysis, which raises the question why didn’t this analysis come from national broadcast or print media? As of August 2015, NBC raised the white flag and asked why nobody knows exactly how many people are killed by police officers.
The topic of police use of force necessarily gets into the sticky nettles which trap an issue into the “decline of intensity of interest” and the “realization of the costs” territory. The sub-topics range from local issues of police recruitment, training, and equipping, to national debates about race relations and voter participation in local and state elections. In some cities, perhaps like Cleveland, OH which have had multiple allegations of excessive force, and notable and duplicated interactions with the Federal Department of Justice, the discussion trails into general issues of local government reform.
Once the glamour of The Crisis is over we’re into the part in which it’s realized that reforming the application of our laws, especially in minority urban settings, is going to be complicated, expensive, and time consuming, the cameras and reports are on to other “more pressing” (i.e. more dramatic) issues and the “post problem” stage begins.
Angry and bored? These may be two of the more significant features of the issue attention cycle. The attempts at comprehensive immigration reform may illustrate this portion of the issue attention cycle. The public generally realizes this country does need to pay attention to immigration issues, indeed a bill passed the Senate only to languish in the GOP controlled House after the last mid term elections. One of the key themes of the Trump Campaign taps into the anger portion of the formula.
There are those who still believe that the solution to the “immigration problem” is mass deportation and the construction of a physical barrier between the US and Mexico. In terms of the Issue Attention Cycle, these people supporting Trump’s rather vacant rhetoric are still in the “Alarm and Enthusiasm” stage, and haven’t yet made the intellectual excursion into the details of the issue, and the protracted, complicated, and expensive nature of the administration of immigration policy. They can be informed that Trump’s “solution” will cost somewhere around $200 to $300 billion dollars, and perhaps take 20 years. [BusInsider] However, having not gone beyond the “Alarm and Enthusiasm” stage, his supporters cling to the generalized notion that the candidate will assuage what’s making them angry, somehow, by doing something…without serious consideration of the expensive implications and policy alternatives.
Continual press coverage of Trump’s litany of generalizations about immigration policy simply serves to extend the life of the “Alarm and Enthusiasm” stage without assisting the public in understanding the complex nature of the issue.
Heaven forefend we get bored. One unfortunate aspect of contemporary media coverage of almost any topic is the “both sides” format in which there are assumed to be two sides to each and every issue. Welcome to the highly complex and extremely important debate about climate change.
Scientifically speaking there’s one side. Global climate change is happening, and we’re responsible. However, the advocacy format, roughly analogous to the media version of a civil trial, lends itself to the presentation and publicizing of “alternative” theories, most of which are associated with energy corporation interests. This is, for all practical purposes, a formula for the insertion of mis-information into public discourse. It’s more obvious in the climate change discussion, but it also allows some absolutely astounding pronouncements on women’s health issues.
We’ve been treated to presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s statement that Planned Parenthood doesn’t do women’s health – which utterly dismisses 97% of what Planned Parenthood does. What wasn’t “women’s health” about the 378,692 Pap tests, 487,029 breast health exams, 1,128,793 pregnancy tests, 18,684 prenatal care services, and 4,470,597 STI/STD tests and treatments in 2013? [Politifact]
The intense debate over the Affordable Care Act gave us one of the more poignant moments in the media’s view of its charge. Chuck Todd, NBC news, told viewers in 2013 it wasn’t the media’s task to correct the record. [TPM] It was, Todd asserted, the White House’s job to “sell” the ACA. In simpler terms, by Todd’s lights the media should report what anyone says, without filtration or fact-checking, and the “other side” would have the responsibility for a response. Nothing quite so dramatically describes the “advocacy format,” or serves the American public quite so poorly. The “advocacy format” can be used to effectively perpetuate misinformation because policy proposals are to be “sold,” and the sales will be made evident in “our latest polling.”
The Cycle and Foreign Policy: If ever there were topics which lend themselves to the Issue Attention Cycle they exist in the category of foreign policy. When discussing the labyrinthine politics of the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, eyes glaze over, and participants in the discussion can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and the team membership depends on which country’s foreign policy is being promoted by what other country’s diplomacy. The Iranians are our enemies – except when they’re propping up the Iraqi government, supporting our efforts in Afghanistan, and helping fight elements of ISIS. The Syrians are our friends? – except when the government is barrel bombing its own citizens, and we need help from the Russians to get the Nukes out of Syria, and it’s fighting with some elements of ISIS. The Kurds are our friends – when they are fighting with ISIS but not so much when they attack our NATO ally Turkey….
This situation illustrates Petersen’s modification of the Issue Attention Cycle by highlighting the “key event re-ignites debate” element. The Middle East is off the screen and the front page until there’s atrocity (which ISIS seem to be very good at), and the issues between and among the US, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen usually raise up in the wake of a drone strike or Saudi Air Force attack. Until the “re-ignition” there’s nothing much in the analysis and explication department unless we elevate the “Benghazi” syndrome to rational status; the attack on the consulate being reduced to short-hand for “I’m angry about US foreign policy in general and I want somebody to do something I like about it.” Or, make it simple, make it dramatic, make it receptive to an easy and cheap solution, so I can comfortably ignore it?
And the cycle goes on.