Asleep at the Presses: The Danger of Media Fatigue

Back in October, Bernie Sanders spoke for many when he said that the American people are "sick and tired" of hearing about his opponent Hillary Clinton's "damn emails." Two months ago, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof apologized for his role in enabling the rise of Candidate Trump in an op-ed titled, "My Shared Shame: The Media Helped Make Trump." Today, it's barely possible to open Twitter without seeing someone weigh in (on someone else weighing in) on the "bathroom bans" in North Carolina. Two months from now, regardless of my attempts to better curate my news, I'll likely be hammered over the head with some other story, to the near-exclusion of practically anything else.

One of the big ideas around media literacy has to do with what's being left out of a media message. As the Executive Director of a New York City-based media literacy organization, The LAMP, I often view the world in these terms, and am hyper-aware of bias and choice in even the most innocuous-seeming messages. A decision to keep running stories about yet another performer cancelling shows in North Carolina is made at the expense of other stories that might also deserve to be told. As such, the danger of the media's echo chamber goes beyond its ability to exclude other narratives; it's also in the way it creates audience fatigue. I don't relish feeling exhausted by stories about civil rights for transgender people, but the current media firehose can't be sustained and it's training us to think "oh, THAT again" when the inevitable, important Supreme Court battle comes up in a year or so. This high stakes game for hot takes in mainstream media endows real issues with all the urgency we now feel about man having invented the wheel, and acknowledges no nuance or depth. Transgender rights will always matter to me, but thanks to the current media barrage about public restrooms, they're annoying me too.

I understand the temptation on the part of the media to give people what they want. The more clicks a celebrity breakup story gets, the more stories are spawned. Yet I can't help needing more from the fourth estate. The belief that news outlets just give us what we want belittles the power they have in shaping what we want. Did we really ask for constant updates on news items even if they have ceased to develop, or have we been trained to care about stories that require minimal time and thought to produce?

I never again want to see another story on Mr. Trump's fashion choices - this "reporting" serves the American people about as well as writing about Hillary Clinton's hair. I understand that stories about presidential style help create levity, and fashion is part of identity politics. But this election season has been unlike any other we've seen. The media have already spent too much time treating Mr. Trump and other Republican candidates like entertainment, and they have abused their privilege to do so. I am exhausted by Trump, but not because I've read so much substantial coverage on how he plans (or doesn't plan) to address climate change and education policy. It's because of the endless jokes about his hair and his hands.

I'd like for mainstream media to collectively agree that we have been sufficiently beaten with Trump one-liners and non-stories about whether or not a birth certificate should be needed to use a bathroom. I'd like to see education and climate change reporting go as viral as photos of any Jenner family member. Perhaps Nicholas Kristof feels better for having apologized and acknowledging bad behavior from the media, but given the lack of change I've seen, it's up to the American people to make it clear that we're not satisfied with a simple sorry. Media fatigue breeds cynicism, but I do still have hope that this change is possible, and believe there is time to follow a new course for Election 2016 reporting that values original, substantial news and civil dialogue.

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