From #BringBackOurGirls to Syria, why do we forget about a crisis long before it's over?
In late April, news hit American audiences that the 300 girls at a Nigerian school had been kidnapped by the now-notorious terrorist group Boko Haram, and outrage ensued — headlines, hashtags, celebrity outcry.
That interest lasted for about a week before sharply dropping off. According to Google Trends data, which can be used to examine the popularity of certain search terms, #BringBackOurGirls had a spike that peaked May 9, and had waned by the following Monday, according to thinkprogress.org.
Why do certain stories snap up our attention — often deserving ones of crisis and suffering — only to lose it weeks or even days later, long before the crisis or suffering is over?
Lauren Wolfe of Foreign Policy turned to expert on women's rights Gloria Steinem for answers. "Bring Back Our Girls was the function of not only a story that created empathy, plus the Internet, but an unfinished story, so our minds kept pushing at it, as if at a sore tooth," said Steinem.
We are intrigued by stories that have urgency and "lack of resolution," she says, but the problem comes when the resolution doesn't come very fast. "People are in it for the plot, and they'll turn their attention elsewhere if the twists stop happening," said Steinem.
Audiences also tend to look more closely at crises at home. "What if instead of Nigeria, 200 U.S. school girls had been abducted at gunpoint? "It is safe to assume that if this had happened, the crime would be on the front page of all major newspapers and the U.S. government would use all of its resources to retrieve the students," says Alexandra Bradford of Global Comment.
Instead, Western audiences have turned their attention to local issues like the plight of thousands of Central American child refugees in the U.S., and less worthy causes like Kate Upton's Instagram updates.
Bradford also chalks up lost interest to what she calls "terrorism fatigue." Since Sept. 11, she argues, acts of terror have lost newness and become "normalized." From bus bombings to taking down passenger jets, the regularity of attacks originally shocked Americans, but has now left them jaded.
"We are now experiencing ‘terrorism fatigue’ stemming from living through bus and train bombings, over a decade of war, a great loss of military and civilian life, and continued threats and acts of violence on behalf of Islamist militants," writes Bradford.
An April study conducted by experimental psychologists looked at the initial success of the Kony 2012 viral video and indicates another issue — audiences want to be able to rally around a single, common enemy.
"Reducing a complex issue to the actions of a single enemy can inspire moral outrage and inspiration to take action," study authors wrote. The fact that both the Nigerian kidnapping victims and Boko Haram have remained mostly faceless in news coverage make the story less personal and compelling.
We're not hopelessly dispassionate, Frank Ochberg, psychiatrist at Michigan State University and chairman emeritus of Columbia Journalism School's Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, told Wolfe of Foreign Policy.
"Our species does remember certain things 'in our bones,' and we have deep resonance with personal tragedies and with societal traumas," Ochberg said. "[But] our species is also forgetful and easily bored. So no wonder we lose interest in a calamity and go on to the next 'Act One' of a news cycle."
It's also hard for audiences to keep going back to stories that are gritty — and perhaps audiences need to develop more of an awareness and stomach for the world's calamities, but our seeming powerless against them can be overwhelming, writes Wolfe.
"It hurts to sustain attention on the story — particularly the speculation about what it is that isn't known. For instance, while the Nigerian government does little, the girls are likely being raped, experts say. That's not easy to digest."
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