Issue-Attention Cycles // The Media’s Short Attention Span & Your Mental Health


by Kylie Byers.

It seems that lately, there’s a new scandal around every corner. Breaking news can seem overwhelming if you’re not in constant contact with your phone, a television, the radio, or your annoying coworker who always has something to say about the news. Being away from the news for a while can feel similar to that “phantom vibration syndrome” you feel after a long text conversation ends but you’re still imagining that your phone is vibrating every few minutes. Something new is always popping up.

For politicians or celebrities involved in certain career- and image-damaging scandals, the rapid movement of the news onto different topics can be a good thing. But for those of us trying to keep up, those of us trying to make a difference, or those of us who have something important to say—this speed can be a hurdle that seems difficult or near impossible to clear. One National Public Radio analysis placed the speed at which news stories pass out of the media’s attention span at just a few weeks, maximum.


This phenomenon has a name: the "issue-attention cycle." Anthony Downs, an American economist, details this phenomenon’s several stages in the order in which they usually appear:

  1. The Pre-Problem Stage

  2. Alarmed Discovery and Euphoric Enthusiasm

  3. Realizing the Cost of Significant Progress

  4. Gradual Decline of Intense Public Interest

  5. The Post-Problem Stage

A number of the last few news headlines can fit into this progression. In Stage One, the issue exists, but has yet to make a significant appearance in the mind of the majority. It is usually catapulted to the forefront of media attention in Stage Two, when something major happens (for example, a tragedy or disaster) and society—optimistically and confidently—decides something must be done about it. Stage Three occurs when the public realizes the cost (monetary, temporal, personal, or otherwise) that would be required to solve the problem, leading directly—and almost imperceptibly—into Stage Four, which involves the public losing more and more interest in a subject because of three reasons: a) it doesn’t affect them personally b) it would require too much effort to fix or c) some other event has taken center stage. Stage Five consists of the more subtle, yet lasting results of the event, i.e. any organizations, groups, or laws that were created out of the event that will remain active even after it fades from the media forefront.

This “Issue-Attention Cycle” can be seen to characterize many of the latest media scandals and stories, but it isn’t insurmountable. What’s important to note in this situation is the power of modern social media communication and the power of the public. News media is most prevalently an entertainment business; it runs based on ratings and how many people are watching, and it caters its content to what it believes people want to see. This means that as the general public, theoretically, we get to decide what we want to see on the media by where we place our priorities. So always remain vigilant in taking an active role in responding to and discussing what you see in the media if you feel that it’s worth being discussed and reported. If your interest and/or interaction with your immediate surroundings and peers isn’t doing the job, take to your next greatest tool: social media.

While traditional media outlets are controlled and governed by private parties in it for the money, the free (mostly) open communities of social media outlets such as Twitter and Instagram are great places where you can disseminate your ideas and conduct conversations about topics that interest you and are important to you. With trending hashtags on both sites, it’s easier to push things toward the forefront of the digital public, and therefore direct the conversation towards what’s important—or keep the conversation focused on what it should be focused on.

Remember also that the most important factor in all of this media overload, however, is your health. While you’re doing your best to stay informed and ensure that the platforms you feel strongly about remain in the public discussion, remind yourself to take breaks, learn to let go, change things up and get involved on a physical level, and look for new perspectives. Keeping yourself healthy and sane is the best way to do your best for the causes you care about.


Downs, Anthony. “Up and Down with Ecology – The Issue-Attention Cycle” Public Interest, 28, (Summer 1972) p. 38.