Do Short Attention Spans Lead the News?

By Casey Bukro

The public’s shifting attention has implications across the media landscape, from CBS’ plans to sell its historic radio division to the expanding influence of topical comedy on TV and the internet.

CBS Radio News.
CBS organized its radio network in 1928.

Radio historian Frank Absher appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” to talk about the heyday of CBS radio. The broadcast described CBS as one of the first networks to truly realize the power of news and develop its uses. Established in 1928, the network owns 117 stations and has an illustrious news-breaking history.

Voices were key to that development—the calm, measured and authoritative voices of correspondents like Edward R. Murrow and Lowell Thomas.

What was the state of broadcast journalism when CBS started? “There wasn’t any,” said Absher, a member of the Radio Preservation Task Force and the St. Louis Media History Foundation. “Broadcast journalism did not exist, not even as a concept. In fact, the early, early radio stations would simply grab a newspaper because a lot of them were owned by newspapers. And they would read stories on the air out of today’s edition.”

Ironically, John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” argues that much of today’s TV news still depends on what journalists find in daily newspapers. But back to Asher’s perspective.

“Program consultants say that we as listeners have very short attention spans,” he said. “So everything has to be short and effectively dumbed down so people will understand what’s being said. You cannot do that when you’re talking about serious journalism, and that’s really not available in too many places.”

So where does that put John Oliver and peers like Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah and HBO’s Bill Maher?

A report from the DePaul University in Chicago student newspaper tracks their immense popularity among the millennial generation. “Though none of the comedic hosts titles themselves as journalist or claim their show as anything more than comedy and satire,” writes Marykate O’Meara, “there are many viewers who disagree.”

A DePaul sophomore says: “These shows are an excellent source of news that fits the attention span and time restrictions of a busy college student.”

Comedy shows should not be viewers’ main news source, said Chris Bury, an award-winner reporter and DePaul instructor. They are purely entertainment, but “they are better than nothing.”

Serious journalism is ‘really not available in too many places.’

Meanwhile, Gannett Co., the country’s second-largest newspaper chain, edges closer to buying Tronc, the newspaper chain formerly known as Tribune Publishing. Tronc owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun. Gannett’s bid has been contentious.

Writing in Politico, media consultant Ken Doctor said “financing looks like it is now in place for Gannett,” but that “Gannett had run into financing issues with large banks.” Issues include the high premium on Tronc’s share price, continued losses in print advertising and sluggish digital advertising sales.

Tough reporting continues by American newspapers. Walter “Robby” Robinson appeared at a University of Tulsa program marking the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize. Robinson was editor of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative team, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the coverup of child sex abuse by Boston-area Catholic priests.

A veteran newsman who covered wars and political corruption, Robinson said he thought he had seen the worst the world had to offer, but that was before the priest investigation.

“Of all the stories any of us had done, we had never seen a story where the gulf between good and evil was so broad, and obvious,” he said. The investigative report appeared in the Boston Globe in 2002 and was “the only story of my career where there was no attempt to blame the messenger (the newspaper),” he said.

Finally, consider the unhearalded things journalists do, says Katy Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin.

“It’s ironic, probably the biggest element of journalism ethics is invisible. It’s the choices you make to not do things,” like not call a family that’s going through a crisis, Culver said.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.

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