As the world prepares to brace itself for a potential Zika pandemic, one can’t help but notice the parallels between this new crisis and the Ebola outbreak of two years ago. While the fundamentals of the viruses are different, the sudden spike in cases and ensuing media panic are the same. But when was the last time we heard anything about Ebola? In fact, when did the news last cover the earthquake in Nepal? Or the countries of the Arab Spring? Did they ever #BringBackOurGirls? The list of abandoned stories goes on.
While it is of course in the nature of news to be ‘new’, once-inescapable stories such as these often go cold. Crises that gripped the headlines for weeks and were on everyone’s lips are swiftly forgotten, never to be mentioned again except in the smallest footnote months later. So why does this happen, and what has become of these news articles that became… old?
Clearly, there are some news stories which just do not have a concrete ending. Instead, they peter out and are shelved as cold-cases. You simply can’t report on a story when there is nothing to report. This was the fate of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign in Nigeria, which, after a huge outpouring of concern from the press and the wider media, has made little progress. Of the 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014, only 53 have been returned home, and despite hopes that President Muhammadu Buhari’s new government would save the remaining girls from captivity, no such rescue has been made. As such, despite the hugely popular twitter hashtag supported by the likes of Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai, the story has dropped from the news radar.
More cynically, certain news stories have conclusions that are ‘too happy’ to be considered newsworthy. Returning to Ebola, the deadly virus that wiped out thousands of people in West Africa, media outlets have remained strangely muted on the news that Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have all been declared Ebola free in the last few months. While the Telegraph’s Chief Foreign Correspondent Colin Freeman accepted this as a triumph for the three countries, he also saw it as boring for the papers, explaining that “the fact is, as any world-weary news editor will tell you, ‘good news’ does not excite the public a great deal”. Dismissing the stories that have apparently happy endings as “one problem we no longer have to worry about”, as Freeman did, not only leaves the public blind to the situation’s conclusion, but also risks trivialising the impact they once had.
While there are some partial success stories like Ebola, which have been dropped because of a good-news-won’t-sell mentality, there are also stories where the situation has deteriorated since their time in the headlines. It will be a year ago this April that the people of Nepal were struck by a huge 7.8 magnitude earthquake that left over 8000 dead. The international community was shocked by the images of destruction and devastation in the media following the disaster, and managed to raise substantial funds towards the relief effort. What has not made it to the front pages is the current situation in Nepal, which threatens to make things even more unworkable than they currently are. The new Nepalese constitution, pushed through the parliament by necessity after the earthquake, has left citizens from certain ethnic groups near the Indian border dissatisfied with their level of representation. Their protests have evolved into a full-scale blockade between India and Nepal, limiting the land-locked country’s access to fuel, food and medicines.
Freda Casagrande of the British-Nepali charity HiCap said “The fuel crisis has caused a bigger problem than you can imagine”. The charity’s project manager in Nepal elaborated: “There is no chance to get cooking gas. People stay in queues for many days but they are still not getting any cooking gas. Very few gas cylinders reach Kathmandu, and they are sold to five star hotels and higher level officers”. She even predicted that “if this situation lasts longer, then there will be news that people are killing each other for a cylinder of cooking gas”.
This certainly cannot fit into the category of news that’s ‘too good’, but it may perhaps be the opposite. There is only a certain amount of sustained tragedy the average person can take before succumbing to so-called ‘empathy fatigue’. Social psychologist Dr Lisa Williams from the University of New South Wales explained this phenomenon to the Australian broadcaster SBS, saying, “The more that we hear about events and suffering and trauma that pull at our proverbial heartstrings, the more likely that some of us just withdraw and no longer have that strong motivation to help.” Reporting day after day about the same problems that are only getting worse, and never better, is therefore hardly going to be good for your readership, emotionally or numerically.
It is also true that the attention of the modern reader is becoming shorter. With super-fast digital media churning out new stories every day, content is being consumed more quickly than ever before, with a recent study by media analytics firm Parse.ly finding that an online article now only has a lifespan of 2.6 days.
It was five years ago that the Arab Spring nations used social media to mobilize support, but now the sphere they once thrived in has moved on, unaware of the new problems facing the region. The huge graduate unemployment in Tunisia and rising unrest fueled by Islamic extremism throughout the region are seemly non-issues, and the only issues reported are those that directly affect us in the UK (see the charming Daily Star headline, “Holiday Brits flock to buy caravans to avoid ISIS terror nuts”). Although the likes of Twitter and Facebook allow stories to reach huge audiences and raise awareness on a truly global scale, they are fickle friends. The modern reader just doesn’t want long-term follow ups on the headlines, and so there is little demand or patience for ‘old news’.
This being true, we should not allow ourselves to forget the importance of continuity. It is essential to have a wide lens view to understand, not only what is happening in our world, but why. Without appreciating the story in full, we may be unprepared to deal with similar situations in the future.
And so, while it may not be in the best journalistic interests to follow through on these neglected stories, perhaps we should stretch our attention a little more for them. After all, as was famously said by the Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it”.
Image: lebstock, The New York Times