Will news consumption preferences change media crisis coverage?

In 2004, Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Psychology, California State University, Los Angeles, published a poignant essay entitled Media Crisis Coverage: To Serve and to Scare. It was published in the Journal of Media Psychology.

Professor Fishoff examines what he calls the “dysfunctional partnership between the media and the public in our increasingly media-centric lives.”  He describes the intimate, adrenaline-fueled dance between viewers and producers of television crisis coverage and observes:

“The thin line between gut-wrenching, vital information and a news-sponsored horror show begins its fade to oblivion.”

In 2001, days after 9/11, a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project titled How Americans Used the Internet After the Terror Attack found that 81% of all Americans said they got most of their information from TV; only 3% of Internet users got most of their information about the attacks from the Internet.”

In his essay Media Crisis Coverage, Fischoff observed:

“During a crisis, many viewers, particularly those with 24-hour cable news shows, seek out the constant drumbeat of news coverage to stay informed and reduce the stress that accompanies uncertainty.  But watching hours of crisis coverage footage can often have the opposite effect.  Visual images go directly to the most primitive parts of our psyche, pushing all the fear buttons.  Anxiety is elevated.  People watch in order to calm themselves.  The more they watch, the more they want to watch because the more anxious they feel.  And the cycle continues.”

To reduce the psychological trauma and anxiety of being drawn into news/horror shows, Fischoff made a number of recommendations. One had to do with the size of the screen that viewers used to watch crisis coverage.

“Shrink the size of the image,” said Fischoff.  “Here is another example of when size matters: According to Detenber (1996), size is important to emotional response. It is important to babies in perceiving others, and to adults when watching a movie in a theater. Image size positively affects the arousal and dominance dimensions of emotional responses. Size is a primitive heuristic (in animals, for example, who is prey and who is predator, or who is too powerful to safely take on) that influences a range of judgments. Films seen as large images on a screen elicit stronger feelings of arousal than the same films when viewed on small screens disbursing small images.”

After reading this essay, I began to wonder about two things:

  • Will the trend toward getting news from the Internet, especially via smartphones and tablets, reduce the traumatic stress that people feel when viewing crisis coverage? Their screens are much smaller than televisions’ (70″ LED screens seem to be the current norm for new TVs).
  • In times of real crises, such as 9/11, will people revert back to getting news from TV because of the “quality” of coverage it presents?

Fast forward ten years. By 2011, Pew found that “The internet now trails only television among American adults as a destination for news, and the trend line shows the gap closing.” The report also found that in December 2010, 41% of Americans cited the internet as the place where they got “most of their news about national and international issues,” up 17% from a year earlier.

Source: Pew Internet and American Life Project

 My Take

Current Internet news coverage fundamentally differs from television news coverage. It tends to be more text than video focused, although this is beginning to change with increases in bandwidth. The comparative lack of video and sound remove much of the visceral “you-are-there” impact of crisis coverage. And if digital coverage becomes too repetitive, i.e., with endless reruns of the Twin Towers falling, viewers can easily switch “channels” or topics. The Internet offers millions of URL’s to choose from.

I suspect that the shift to digital news consumption will have a psychologically mitigating effect on consumers. I also suspect, for television producers, the real horror show will be their bottom line.

Adapting to the Side Effects of New Technologies

Rehak’s Law: Like medicine, every new technology has side effects that are unintended. Rehak’s Corollary: The more popular the technology, the greater the side effects. For instance:

  • Cell phones and texting distract drivers and contribute to traffic accidents.
  • The Internet makes porn readily available to kids.
  • Electronic commerce opens a door to identity theft.
  • Email invites spam
  • Video games make violence feel commonplace

Diffusion Theory Describes How Innovations Spread Through Society

“Diffusion” is term used by marketers to describe the process by which the market accepts new technologies, products and ideas. Everett Rogers popularized the theory in his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations. The book explains how, why, and at what rate new technologies, products and ideas spread through cultures. Rogers describes five categories of adopters.

  • Innovators – venturesome
  • Early adopters – leaders
  • Early majority – deliberate
  • Late majority – skeptical
  • Laggards – fearful

The ability of most marketers to find and appeal to innovators and early adopters determines their success. The distribution of these groups within any population looks something like this.

 Diffusion curve

How Society Adapts to Side Effects of New Technologies

Roger’s theory focuses on the adoption of new technologies, products and ideas. One could draw a similar curve, however, that describes adaptation to new technologies, products and ideas as people deal with their inevitable side effects. Here, too, I have observed five stages.

  • Recognition
  • Communication
  • Insulation
  • Regulation
  • Obsolescence

Superimposed over the adoption curve, the adaptation curve looks something like this.

Adaptation curve

Innovators and early adopters are among the first to recognize side effects.

They communicate with each other to raise awareness of side effects as they become apparent. At this early stage, self-defense is the only defense against dangers.

As more people adopt new technologies, aftermarkets develop for products and services that insulate people from negative side effects. For instance, computer networking spawned products that:

  • Inoculated computers against viruses
  • Blocked hackers with firewalls
  • Encrypted data to protect against identity theft

At this stage, the spread of side effects plateaus but continues. If the problems are severe enough and affect enough people, government steps in to pass regulations that impose fines or jail time on abusers.

However, abuse – or the side effect – never really stops until a technology becomes obsolete and people migrate to newer technologies (the dotted line in the graph above). At that point, criminals lose interest and follow the market. By the time you reach the end of one technology’s life cycle, something new is coming out. The cycle, like life, repeats itself.

Texting: The Death of Conversation?

Courtesy of Rick Janacek

Will phone conversations or even face-to-face conversations become obsolete? The telephone enabled people to talk to each other without seeing each other.  Now texting and instant messaging enable people to talk to each other without hearing each other. Why do people need to talk when they can just text?

I first realized that live conversation could be endangered when I tried to contact my cousin. We try to talk on the telephone every few weeks. However, trying to reach her is always difficult. She rarely answers her phone and often takes a week or more to respond to voice mails. However, I receive responses within an hour if I text her.


I recently tried an experiment. I called her cell phone. As usual, she did not answer. So, I texted her and – within in one minute – she responded. We spent the next hour texting back and forth. Not one to two sentences, but four to five paragraphs of text each time. It took much longer to type than talk!

Research points out that my cousin is not alone. A Pew Internet Research Center survey conducted in 2012 found that texting is the first communication choice for teens. 63% of those surveyed say they exchange text messages every day with people in their lives, and the median number of texts sent on a typical day by teens rose to 60 in 2011. But it’s not just teenagers; adults are also texting at a rapid pace. The media research firm, Nielsen Co., conducted an analysis of cellphone bills for the Wall Street Journal in 2010 and found that people from ages 45 to 54 sent and received more than 300 text messages a month – ten a day!

My Take

Texting is a very intrusive medium that grabs people’s attention. It also makes it possible for people to send messages in meetings and classrooms without disturbing the proceedings.  It’s “background communication,” i.e., something you can do while you’re occupied with more important things. However:

  • It distracts the sender and often leaves the receiver befuddled.
  • The absence of sight and sound strip much of the emotional content from communication. It’s hard to tell whether a person is joking, cynical, angry, confused or serious. So I lose the nuances of seeing someone’s expression or hearing their inflection.
  • The texter may be juggling five other “conversations” simultaneously. That makes me feel less important.  A proxy experience has replaced personal contact.

Texts have all the charm of a telegraph. Stop.

But texting does have a place. Communicating successfully requires the ability to master each medium and know when and how to use them to convey your message. As a linguist at Fordham University stated in a recent article in the Huffington Post, texting “is an art that can be as valuable as good writing.” How you use that skill determines whether you will be an effective communicator or just someone lost inside your own smartphone.

Courtesy of Rick Janacek