Strictly from a newspaper point of view and comparing today with maybe 40 years ago, current events are re-writing the basic rules of what we in the business have always called call "story sense."
Forty years ago it would have been major front-page news for researchers to find a geological fault line in a densely populated area. Then, OMG, on top of that, I can't even imagine how huge it would have been for people 40 years ago to see something like Stephen Young's piece here yesterday: He reported that the federal government has found proof that human beings are doing stuff to cause earthquakes all around that fault line.
That would have been a story with people running around like chickens with their heads cut off back in the day. There would have been huge protests, an entire instant social movement: "STOP IT WITH THE EARTHQUAKES NOW!"
Now, not so much. Eh. People messing around causing earthquakes in residential areas? "Yeah, OK, but tell me what's up with Adrian Peterson. Cowboys gonna get him?"
My analysis is not that people are idiots. I think there has to be some much more profound principle at work. I don't know what it is. But my working thesis is some kind story overload, and I think the cause is us in the media somehow, not the real world.
The Dallas Morning News published results of a poll a couple days ago showing that a lot of people in Dallas have serious doubts about plans to build an expressway downtown along the Trinity River, out between the flood control levees that protect downtown from inundation during the region's biannual monsoon seasons. But people's main concern was cost of construction.
At first I thought that meant people didn't care that the highway in the floodway could produce a flood in downtown Dallas that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studies have shown would far outstrip the catastrophic results of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Then I realized the pollsters hadn't even asked about that.
The pollsters asked them if they were worried the flood waters might hurt the highway. Nobody's even thinking about the scenario in which baby carriages and wheelchairs are floating down into the next county.
It's too big. It feels like one of those just-shoot-me problems. If it's going to be that bad, just take me out.
Look, you can't get much mileage at all out of a story today saying that scientists have proof that all life on the planet may be extinguished by climate change. People will only talk about the End Times if it involves Jesus. If it's just us bringing about planetary extinction, so what?
"Hmm. Doomsday scenario, eh? Hey, that reminds me, I never hear about Lindsay Lohan anymore."
It's a behavior. A syndrome. I think it's story overload. When a story becomes too big to comprehend -- which may be when it feels like it's too big for anybody to do anything about -- then it drops way down the story-sense order of priority.
Take Blue Bell. If Blue Bell's got one plant in Oklahoma turning out Listeria-laced ice cream, OMG! That's huge! Page One! But if it's all of Blue Bell, like all the Blue Bell in the universe? Forget about it.
"Hey, you got any more amazing stories about professional athletes behaving badly? No? Nothing about naughty athletes? What about immigration?"
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Even shock value works differently. People really getting their real heads chopped off on TV? "Yeah, didn't I see this already?"
It doesn't necessarily mean that the problems have grown bigger or people's ability to cope with them has grown smaller. And here I come back to story sense again. It could just be that we in the media have developed the means and the capacity to present the audience with vastly more problems on a much greater scale of terrible than was possible even decades ago. And in so doing, in selling our wares this way, we finally have pushed the audience to an inevitable shrug.
The shrug. Hands out, palms up. Eyebrows raised. Whaddya want from me? End of the world, all Blue Bell is poison, and guys are causing earthquakes under my house? Tell you what. Gimme some of that Blue Bell.
Am I imagining this?