On November 8, 2016, the day that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Ohio pig farmer Erik Hagerman decided to stop reading the news. In a modern-day experiment reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau’s retreat to Walden Pond, Hagerman meticulously stripped all his connections to politics and other current events, gaining the label of “the most ignorant man in America.”
Although not all agreed with Hagerman’s extreme reaction to the news, many could relate to his emotional overload. With the rise of online newspapers and the subsequent decline of print ones, news can spread more quickly than ever. The Washington Post alone publishes an average of 500 stories and videos per day. As a result, according to a study by Pew Research Center, nearly seven in 10 Americans report feeling “overwhelmed” by the modern news cycle.
No longer bound by a 12-by-22-inch paper, the news cycle has grown been expedited. This is a phenomenon occurring across the board: Brett Kavanaugh. Jamal Khashoggi. Jussie Smollett. All were large disputes that subtly fell from the spotlight as new headlines rose to prominence.
Although such quick and varied coverage allows the previously unheard to gain a voice, it also facilitates the popularity of smaller yet more melodramatic headlines, often at the expense of more consequential ones. This dilemma is compounded by the influence of the Trump administration—even after all of President Trump’s accusations of “fake news,” the former reality television star knows how to manipulate the media.
“Trump has challenged the press not just through his ‘fake news’ and ‘enemy of the people’ schtick, but also by straining the bounds of our ability to separate the serious from the sensational,” commented Columbia Journalism Review writer Pete Vernon.
One pertinent example of this blurring of lines occurred on November 18, 2016, a mere 10 days after President Trump’s election. The New York Times released a headlining story on the $25 million lawsuit settlement over Trump University’s fraudulent degrees. Yet the following day, just as the lawsuit story was gaining traction, it was replaced by a more sensational one: Vice President Mike Pence’s controversial visit to the musical “Hamilton.” President Trump quickly Tweeted in defense of Vice President Pence, and social media users latched on. Although President Trump also Tweeted a response to the Trump University story, it was overshadowed and received only 14,400 re-Tweets in comparison to the “Hamilton” story’s 38,600. Some accused President Trump of using the “Hamilton” scandal to cover up the Trump University story. Still, a few days later, even “Hamilton” had become old news.
Thus is the damage of a rapid news cycle: events slip by without change, and, whether it is a White House controversy, another school shooting or another instance of police brutality, repeated themes are subtly becoming a part of everyday life. The normalization of what would once have been considered an extreme event then induces passivity and even apathy towards it, only allowing further occurrences.
The easy response to the news cycle is to take a back seat and watch it pass (or, like Hagerman, ignore it altogether), but such a reaction will prove destructive to society. Following each news controversy, it is the responsibility of the global citizen to not only call upon, but also participate in, change. We must not simply share an issue on social media and feel we have done our part, because each daily controversy is not an isolated event. After its fleeting pass through the news cycle, it joins the undercurrents of a cultural shift that normalizes extremities and will shape the human narrative in the coming years.