June 13, 2009

The "Issue-Attention Cycle"

Although Up and Down With Ecology: The "Issue-Attention Cycle" by Anthony Downs was written over 35 years ago (in The Public Interest, Summer 1972), the "issue-attention cycle" is perhaps even more problematic today.

It seems our society has an attention span problem, in addition to inavoidable cognitive bias like framing. Some scientists have even compared attitudes on some issues (and the issue attention cycle itself) to the Kübler-Ross model of the 5 stages of grief. There's also some similarity with the Hype Cycle (blog) and other models of technological innovation (which themselves can be the inverse of risk perception models).


Here's an excerpt and summary of Downs' 1972 framing of the "issue-attention cycle:"
"American public attention rarely remains sharply focused upon any one domestic issue for very long - even if it involves a continuing problem of crucial importance to society. Instead, a systematic "issue-attention cycle" seems strongly to influence public attitudes and behavior concerning most key domestic problems. Each of these problems suddenly leaps into prominence, remains there for a short time, and then -- though still largely unresolved -- gradually fades from the center of public attention. A study of the way this cycle operates provides in-sights into whether public attention is likely to remain sufficiently focused upon any given issue to generate enough political pressure to cause effective change"
  1. Pre-problem : A problem exists, but only some experts and interest groups are alarmed. 
  2. Discovery and Enthusiasm : There is alarm and concern over a discovered environmental problem. People band together to support a solution and attack the problem. 
  3. Realization : The public starts to understand the cost and difficulty of making progress on the issue. 
  4. Decline in Interest : Because of this realization, there is a decline in public interest (and therefore media attention). 
  5. Post-problem : The issue isn’t resolved but there is less attention on it. However, the overall level of interest is higher than when the problem was discovered. This may result in small recurrences of interest.”
Problems posed by the issue-attention cycle have only intensified since 1972, and we're left with the recurring question of agenda: 'What Is to Be Done?'

Confucius has better advice than Lenin -- though it's far more personally challenging:
If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.


Update: A new Cornell study, Meme-tracking and the Dynamics of the News Cycle, discussed by the New York Times (Study Measures the Chatter of the News Cycle) is interesting, but so far seems to be targeted to something other than improved decision-making. Still it's worth a look; here's an excerpt of the NYT article:
'The paper, “Meme-tracking and the Dynamics of the News Cycle,” was also written by Jure Leskovec, a postgraduate researcher at Cornell, who this summer will become an assistant professor at Stanford, and Lars Backstrom, a Ph.D. student at Cornell, who is going to work for Facebook. The team has set up interactive displays of their findings at memetracker.org.Social scientists and media analysts have long examined news cycles, though focusing mainly on case studies instead of working with large Web data sets. And computer scientists have developed tools for clustering and tracking articles and blog posts, typically by subject or political leaning.
But the Cornell research, experts say, goes further in trying to track the phenomenon of news ideas rising and falling. “This is a landmark piece of work on the flow of news through the world,” said Eric Horvitz, a researcher at Microsoft and president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. “And the study shows how Web-scale analytics can serve as powerful sociological laboratories.”

Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor specializing in new media at the Columbia Journalism School, said the research was an ambitious effort to measure a social phenomenon that is not easily quantified. “To the extent this kind of approach could open the door to a new understanding of the news cycle, that is very interesting,” he said.'
Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor specializing in new media at the Columbia Journalism School, said the research was an ambitious effort to measure a social phenomenon that is not easily quantified. “To the extent this kind of approach could open the door to a new understanding of the news cycle, that is very interesting,” he said.'

No comments: