Not Necessarily the News

December 5, 2019  • Charles M. Firestone & Lucas Welch

In an era of information overload, attention is a key scarcity. With tweets, articles, videos, podcasts, email newsletters, and more filling our physical and mental mailboxes, what do we pay attention to? The topic has been the subject of many articles and books, way too many to read. The short answer is that we tend to consume the content that engages us emotionally.

That means that those who want our attention—advertisers, advocates, politicians—have to push their messages beyond the common fog of information. So they lead with emotionally charged content, sometimes aspirational but too often sensationalistic, fear-mongering, and divisive.

Though this has always been true in the rough and tumble world of political campaigns, one could make a strong case that President Donald Trump has single-handedly driven political discourse into uncharted territories. Even without him, however, Americans would be in a new reality. The sheer scale of information people now have access to, and the sophistication with which that content is optimized through data analysis to achieve maximal emotional effect, have perilous implications for the health of representative democracy.

Some of those implications are quite evident. Americans are sorting themselves into tribes and struggling to have the nuanced, civil discussions necessary to address complex challenges. Other implications are less apparent. The old adage “all politics is local” has been flipped on its head. With the hyper-charged cable-news landscape and rise of social media, local news has declined precipitously. A University of North Carolina study of news deserts recently found that 20 percent of all US metro and community newspapers have gone out of business or merged since 2004, and more than 2,000 counties no longer have a daily newspaper. As noted by the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, the United States has seen a nationalization of the news.

A growing body of research shows that the shift from local to national news has led to a decline in split-ticket voting, in which people vote for one party at the top of the ticket and another down-ballot. Over the past two decades, congressional elections have increasingly become referenda on whoever is in the White House, regardless of which party has the presidency. Not surprisingly, the same period has seen a significant increase in party-line voting in Congress: members understand their fates are intimately linked to the president’s. Other factors, like an increasing number of primary challenges from the edges of the party and escalating party battles, certainly help explain the trend. But it is hard to imagine that the nationalization of the news hasn’t played a significant part. If you worry that Congress might become subservient to an imperial presidency—whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat—you should be concerned by the nationalization of the news.

Information—and misinformation—on social media has been the source of real and justifiable alarm. “It is our responsibility,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has written, “to amplify the good and mitigate the harm.” But what resources Facebook and others have invested have been primarily focused on mitigating harm, such as misinformation and foreign interference. More resources need to be committed there—and, critically, to exploring what good can be amplified. A healthy public square with trusted electoral information is more resilient when resisting misinformation and interference than the current morass. But what constitutes good, and who decides? Can content be good and capture voters’ attention? Can it be commercially viable?

To grapple with these and other related questions, the Institute’s Communications and Society Program recently launched the Attention & Democracy Initiative with initial support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Charles Koch Foundation. The initiative is consulting with a network of leaders from civil society, the tech sector, media, politics, and marketing to arrive at criteria for good content in the context of US elections—and to cultivate market incentives to stimulate the production and distribution of that content. One approach that the initiative is exploring is to develop a certification system, analogous to LEED certification for green buildings, for candidate appearances that would certify content that meets predetermined, verifiable standards.

Admittedly, a certification system on its own would not solve the challenge of commercial viability. That is why other market incentives need to be explored. Here a few possibilities:

  • A competition similar to the Knight News Challenge or XPrize, with financial awards for innovative programming that meets quality standards and attracts viewers. Competitive media may not reach binge-worthiness, but they can certainly tap current content creators to develop formats for candidate appearances that meet basic quality standards and are consistent with modern media consumption (Shark Tank! World Poker Tour!).
  • Priority distribution of certified content on major social media platforms. This would give platforms a PR win, cost them very little, and radically increase distribution.
  • Corporate sponsorship for certified content. Brands see Millennials and Gen Z as “belief-driven buyers.” A trusted certification system could provide major brands assurance that content is nonpartisan and enable them to demonstrate that by promoting a healthier political sphere they are part of the solution.

There will not be any silver bullets. The Attention & Democracy Initiative has no illusions regarding the myriad challenges associated with each of the concepts outlined above. But given the stakes for every policy challenge the nation faces—from how to cultivate a prosperous and inclusive economy to how to ensure US national security—they are worthy of attention.

Charlie Firestone is the executive director of the Institute’s Communications and Society Program. Lucas Welch is the director of the program’s Attention and Democracy Initiative. To learn more, visit