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Uncovered stories and attention economics

I had the pleasure of meeting Matt and Emily Mason in Boston yesterday. Matt and Emily are the founders of Wedia, a new non-profit designed to call attention to undercovered humanitarian crises around the world. Their first efforts have been in matching up professional journalists and videographers with aid organizations responding to famine in Niger and other global crises, producing high-quality video that could be used by international news organizations to report on breaking stories.

Matt and Emily have discovered that there’s no shortage of undercovered stories to tell, and that journalists are deeply interested in telling these stories. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find the money to get journalists to these stories, as many newspapers and television networks are cutting foreign bureaus – Wedia is looking at strategies to raise money to support travel costs to produce this sort of footage.

But money isn’t the only commodity in short supply when it comes to the problem of media coverage of the developing world. A much more dear commodity is attention. Wedia produces media that should be very useful for TV stations; Global Voices produces lots of text media that could be useful to newspapers and websites. We both have problems getting this content amplified by mainstream media.

We’re not alone. I was listening to On the Media as I drove home last night, and heard a story about Circle of Blue, a foundation-funded project that helps journalists cover stories about the emerging crisis over fresh water. The reporter featured on the show, Joe Contreras, talked about a story he’d covered in Tehuacán, Mexico, where falling water tables are forcing farmers off the land and across the border to the US. Asked whether he’d managed to find carriage for his story, he explained that Mexican papers had gratefully run excerpts from the piece, but that no North American media had picked up the video, photos or text.

(By the way, if you can find fifty minutes in your life, listen to this week’s On the Media. It begins with an excoriation of American media outlets for failing to call waterboarding “torture”, includes stories the independent media in Pakistan, media sting operations in India, battles over history textbooks in the Pacific Rim, and an interview with Kevin Sites that didn’t even piss me off. When this program is at its best, it is unquestionably the best thing on US radio.)

Efforts like Circle of Blue are important – they provide information from corners of the world that journalists don’t go to often enough. Contreras explained that editors in Mexico City were aware that there was a story to be told in Tehuacán, but didn’t have the resources to cover it. But the fact that American magazines and 24-hour “news” channels aren’t lining up for this content leaves me deeply worried about supply-side approaches to this problem.

At a certain point, anyone focused on changing the dynamics of media attention has to think about how to direct attention to an issue. The economics of attention are such that certain people – political leaders, athletes, celebrities – attract huge amounts of attention and can sometimes redirect it, voluntarily or otherwise. Kanye West is so famous that attention focused on him falls on his mother, and when she dies during cosmetic surgery, attention spills over and we see newspaper stories on the dangers of cosmetic surgery. Other celebrities – Bono, Oprah – are conscious of the supply of attention they hold and the possibility that they might be able to redirect it towards attention to causes.

One solution to undercovered stories is to try to match each to a celebrity. This might well work, if audiences feel like the celebrity’s interest is genuine and if he or she can direct attention to the cause. But there’s an open question about whether it’s possible to transfer an audience’s attention from the celebrity to the cause. If Bono stops talking about Africa and starts talking about land mines, do his fans move with him?

Clearly, there’s other ways to get attention to undercovered stories. Fear seems to work well – after 9/11, the authors who’d been failing to sell their books on the rise of radical Islam in Central Asia suddenly found lots of interested readers. Fast-moving crises can work well too, if they’re big and bad enough – Katrina did a great deal for the undercovered stories of urban poverty, failing schoolsystems and political corruption in Louisiana.

I’m beginning to feel like there’s a need for some basic work in attention economics. In its absence, figuring out how to try to get people to pay attention to the US’s role in destabilizing Somalia is a bit like trying to run a lemonade stand without knowing whether profit or loss is the one you’re striving for.

2 thoughts on “Uncovered stories and attention economics”

  1. Ethan wrote: “I’m beginning to feel like there’s a need for some basic work in attention economics.”

    Welcome to the club! As a journalist who wants to focus more on global health issues, I agree we need to do a lot of hard thinking about business models as well as holding people’s attention. One of my early jobs at TIME in the 1980s involved explaining why our mostly straight, middle American audience needed to pay more attention to a sexually transmitted disease that was hitting gay men, IV drug users and hemophiliacs particularly hard.

    It takes focus and commitment, but it can be done.

  2. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » The People’s Democratic Republic of Britney

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