Our attention spans are not shrinking
Long-form reports thrive in a time of clickbait journalism
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 (लुभावना) part is that the figure itself was not from Microsoft’s research; it was a citation (अवतरण) 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 (काल्पनिक) 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 (चटपटी खबर) that are often without a proper context. The emergence of clickbait (वेबसाइट पर उपयोगकर्ता को आकर्षित करने के लिए प्रयुक्त सामग्री) 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has given way to personal slander (झूठी निंदा) and interrogation to bubble filters, inquisitiveness (जिज्ञासा) has been replaced by echo chambers, and dialogue has got trapped in algorithmic silos (बुखारी).
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 (स्वजातिभक्रण) 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 (अवधाव) 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 (ग़लती पर होनेवाला) methods, refrains (कार्य से निवृत्त होना) 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.
- Intriguing: holding the attention or provoking interest
Synonyms: absorbing, arresting, consuming, engaging, engrossing, enthralling, fascinating, gripping, immersing, interesting, involving, riveting
Antonyms: boring, drab, dry, dull, heavy, monotonous, tedious, uninteresting
- Citation: a formal expression of praise
Synonyms: accolade, encomium, commendation, dithyramb, eulogium, eulogy, homage, hymn, paean, panegyric, salutation, tribute
Antonyms: censure, condemnation, denunciation, indictment, rebuke, reprimand, reproof
- Mythical: based on, described in, or being a myth
Synonyms: fabled, fabulous, legendary
Antonyms: attested, authenticated, confirmed, established, proven, substantiated, validated, verified
- Titbits: something that is pleasing to eat because it is rare or a luxury
Synonyms: bit, cate [archaic], dainty, delectable, goody (or goodie), kickshaw, delicacy (also titbit), treat, viand
- Clickbait: (on the Internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.
- Slander: the making of false statements that damage another’s reputation
Synonyms: aspersing, blackening, calumniation, calumny, character assassination, defamation, defaming, libel, libeling (or libelling), maligning, smearing, traducing, vilification, vilifying
Antonyms: acclaim, accolade, applause, commendation, praise, adoration, reverence, veneration, worship, esteem, honor, respect
- Inquisitiveness: an eager desire to find out about things that are often none of one’s business
Synonyms: curiousness, curiosity, nosiness
Antonyms: incuriosity, incuriousness
- Silos: Isolate (one system, process, department, etc.) from others.
- Cannibalising: (of a company) reduce the sales of (one of its products) by introducing another similar product.
- Avalanche: A sudden arrival or occurrence of something in overwhelming quantities.
Synonyms: barrage, volley
- Devious: clever at attaining one’s ends by indirect and often deceptive means
Synonyms: beguiling, cagey (also cagy), crafty, cunning, cute, designing, artful, dodgy [chiefly British], foxy, guileful, scheming, shrewd, slick, sly, subtle, tricky, wily
Antonyms: artless, guileless, ingenuous, innocent, undesigning
- Refrains: a part of a song or hymn that is repeated every so often
Synonyms: burden, chorus