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Our attention spans are not shrinking

A myth that has captured the imagination of the managerial class is that our attention spans are shrinking in this digital era. Last year, the BBC carried a story, “Busting the attention span myth”, which showed that the oft-citied statistic of the average attention span being down from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds now is not based on any real research. This particular number was from a 2015 report by the Consumer Insights team of Microsoft Canada, which surveyed 2,000 Canadians and also studied the brain activity of 112 people as they carried out various tasks, the report said.

The intriguing part is that the figure itself was not from Microsoft’s research; it was a citation from another source called ‘Statistic Brain’. The BBC reporter contacted two of the sources cited by Statistic Brain — the National Centre for Biotechnology Information at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and the Associated Press — and neither could find any research that backed up the numbers. Statistic Brain chose not to speak to the BBC reporter, and other specialists who spoke to the reporter had no idea where the numbers came from either. However, the mythical statistic gained traction.

Journalism in the digital age

The focus in this digital age has moved from in-depth reporting to real-time tweeting and single-line news scrolls on television screens. Exhaustive reports have given way to information titbits that are often without a proper context. The emergence of clickbait journalism, which is far removed from the purpose of journalism, is one of the biggest disservices of the digital age. Debate has given way to personal slander and interrogation to bubble filters, inquisitiveness has been replaced by echo chambers, and dialogue has got trapped in algorithmic silos.

A couple of years ago, the Columbia School of Journalism hosted a conference called ‘The Future of Digital Longform’. Its aim was to look at pressing questions such as: Is form following function, or is the medium cannibalising the message? How can you maintain quality control? How do you make money? The fundamental premise of the conference was the flawed assumption that people’s attention spans would reduce over time.

Going against the grain

During this downward spiral, this paper retained its sense of commons. It’s time to celebrate this spirit of going against the grain to retain the core values of journalism. In July 21, 2014, in my column “Clues to the future”, I cited George Brock’s four journalistic tasks that will survive the digital disruption: verification, sense making, witness, and investigation. During this phase of searches for digital revenues and a reductionist approach to journalism, it is heartening to see The Hindu providing an answer to the media’s existential question: how can we stay relevant in this digital avalanche of information? It did not opt for clickbait journalism, but opened up its pages more for long-form journalism. Today, I can say with utmost certainty that The Hindu is the only paper in India which has about 20 pages dedicated to rigorous, long-form journalism a week. I was pleased when journalism students stopped me to praise the investigative report, “A game of chicken: how India’s poultry farms are spawning global superbugs” (Jan. 31, 2018), a collaborative venture between this newspaper and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The best part about long-form journalism is that it brings back the importance of writing skills, literary flourishes, and locates the story within the larger framework of our world. It gives space to explore an issue in its entirety. The subject for investigation ranges from town planning to education, from public health to civil aviation. No discipline is taboo. Long-form pieces in The Hindu are not restricted only to the national pages or to the weekly feature called Ground Zero. Every State gets a full page (page 2 on Sundays) to investigate an issue. Investigative journalism here does not cut corners, does not employ devious methods, refrains from using any of the elements of sting journalism, and forces reporters to follow the first principles of journalism. And in doing so, these long-form reports have effectively called out the lie perpetuated by clickbait journalism.

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Printable version | Aug 2, 2021 4:32:36 AM |

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