Fall 2010 | Online Exclusives

The Attention Deficit: Plenty of Content, Yet an Absence of Interest

By Ethan Zuckerman
As news organizations wrestle with the challenge of discovering profitable reporting models for a digital age, at least three types of public service journalism are endangered species—investigative reporting, in-depth statehouse and city government coverage, and foreign coverage. RELATED ARTICLES
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Expensive to produce, they have been subsidized by more profitable facets of news operations. While online news producers like ProPublica and Voice of San Diego offer promising new models to sustain investigative and local government reporting, less experimentation—though some—is being directed at sustaining high-quality international coverage on digital platforms. If greater attention is not paid to this circumstance, we may soon reach a time when the foreign correspondent is a relic from a past age of journalism.

My colleague Solana Larsen offers a provocative suggestion that the end of the foreign correspondent model might be a good thing. Too often, foreign correspondents parachute into unfamiliar situations and offer a view that’s insufficiently informed by the facts on the ground and is overly influenced by the biases of the audience they’re speaking to. The rise of participatory media and the flowering of independent press around the world gives us alternatives to the foreign correspondent: We can listen to local journalists (professional and citizen) who report on the situation in their countries through local eyes, relying on local knowledge.

Ethan Zuckerman in “Listening to Global Voices” at TEDGlobal 2010 talks about clever strategies to open up your Twitter world and read the news in languages you don't even know.
I share Larsen’s passion for amplifying independent voices to a global audience. But I am less sanguine than she at the prospect of losing the foreign correspondent. In a digital age we can listen to knowledgeable local voices, but it’s unclear that we will. Our experience at Global Voices Online suggests that there is a great appetite for local voices on stories that have made the global radar: the Haitian earthquake, the election protests in Iran. But there’s far less interest expressed in stories that have not cracked the mainstream news narrative, like the coup in Madagascar and its aftermath.

The scarce resource in the age of digital journalism is not high-quality content, but attention. I have no fear of a shortage of quality reporting from Madagascar or Malaysia. Instead, I fear these voices are likely to go unheard. The best foreign correspondents are not just deeply knowledgeable about the countries they write about—they are masters at leading their audiences to a story they RELATED ARTICLE
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might have otherwise ignored. As we move to a time in which we rely more on local voices to report international news, we will need to wrestle with this problem by asking ourselves how we help a U.S. audience pay attention to a Malagasy reporter’s dispatch from her own country.

Ethan Zuckerman is a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and cofounder of Global Voices Online.

5 Comments on The Attention Deficit: Plenty of Content, Yet an Absence of Interest
C. Brayton says:
December 31, 2010 at 5:23am
I do worry about the decline in quality foreign correspondence. Content managers at the major news organizations have decided these are unproductive cost centers and so have decided to follow your methods, in which the foreign policy establishment exercises editorial control of locally produced content in terms of whether it is aligned with policy objectives or not. The result is a vision of foreign realities manufactured, in the final analysis, on K Street and Mad Ave out of inputs produced cheaply by local labor or exiles. This is readily visible where we live, in Brazil, where in-depth knowledge of the biases of large media groups is often necessary to separate wheat from chaff. GVO, historically, has done little to promote this sort of local knowledge or to draw attention to independent alt.press sources engaged in media criticism. An example was its frequent citation of a specific "Brazilian blogger" without mentioning the paycheck he received from a major media group, as well as the failure to disclose the status of its in-country editor as a Brazilian government employee Perhaps it has changed its practices since then. I'm with you, Ethan: It is a sorry state of affairs that independent professional journalism is being supplanted by content produced in and subsidized by think tanks and their talking heads, driven as they often are by donor interests and requirements. It's just that I am not as ready as you are to admit that this is the best we can hope for under the lamentable circumstances.
Jonathan Stray says:
September 17, 2010 at 8:21am
I am unclear on where exactly you believe the problem to lie. Is there an attention deficit as in people "should" spend more time consuming international news? Or is there an attention deficit in the sense that no one person can never hope to keep up with all of the stories worth following? If we want people to spend more minutes each day, then we need to find ways to engage their curiosity, to help them "get lost" in learning about world events. For many people, Wikipedia is far, far better at this than traditional news web sites. I'd like to see more exploration of why this is so. But this will never solve the absolute limit of available time. Instead I wonder about information specialization. I believe that the purpose of journalism is the facilitation of agency in a populace. We know from the web that in most settings, only about 1% of users are content creators. How can we ensure that the right stories get to the 1% of people who can and will do something about them? - Jonathan
Ilene says:
September 11, 2010 at 3:17pm
Yes. I've often wondered how correspondents could jettison around from Wall Street to Beijing to Moscow and be expected to report with a satisfactory degree of accuracy or feel for the issues needing attention. I've been checking in on Global Voices Online for years now and think that it's one of the best citizen news sites out there.
fjpoblam says:
September 11, 2010 at 10:07am
I've found, also, a need for quality writing. This increases with web stories: the need to engage the reader's attention right from the start! A print reader may be more willing to glance at the size of the story and wade through it. A web reader glances: glances, sees a weighty paragraph in small print, and moves on. Give the web reader a short leading paragraph or two in small forceful wording, a la Hemingway. Suck the reader in. Too many web writers have transferred from a print environment without transferring their writing mode.
Rob Leavitt says:
September 10, 2010 at 12:05pm
Thanks Ethan, great post. I think you're right on. The challenge is not high quality reporting (although sometimes it's hard to sort through the noise to find it), it's much more connecting with people amid the overload. Nick Kristof's recent discussion of why he so often includes "great white heros" in his stories from conflict zones (because readership soars) is a dramatic case in point. Even such an experienced journalist as Kristof struggles for an audience when he doesn't at least partly cater to audience wants and needs (and prejudices). Your Global Voices experience makes the point nicely as well. The more voices we have clamoring for attention (which generally is a great thing) the more important editorial guidance and selection becomes - even as it becomes more about curation and context-setting than traditional assignment.
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