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World: Analysis From Washington -- A Kaleidoscope Of Crises

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 1 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The increasing number of crisis points around the world and the increasingly rapid shift in media attention from one to another is rapidly overwhelming the capacity of decision makers, direct participants, and broader groups of observers to cope with any of them.

It has meant that decision makers frequently lack the time necessary to focus on specific situations and to build the domestic support needed to take effective action. It has meant that those directly involved in each crisis have had to make increasingly dramatic public statements or take ever more dramatic measures to attract attention to their issue.

And it has meant that even those people around the world who want to keep abreast of what is going on frequently find themselves unable to focus on any particular issue and thus become increasingly skeptical about coverage which appears to shift so quickly from one problem to another.

Like many ongoing trends in the world that these three developments themselves have tended to obscure, the broad impact of such shifts in media attention from one crisis to another has often gone unnoticed. But events in the last few months have forced ever more people to consider the impact of this feature of the new media environment.

In the last several months alone, the media has focused in turn on the meltdown of the Pacific rim economies, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and the economic and political problems of the Russian Federation.

Typically, news outlets have focused on one crisis to the virtual exclusion of all others, and then these same outlets have shifted their attention to a new crisis and largely ignored the one to which they had devoted so much attention only a few weeks or even days before.

An obvious example is how the Western news media have handled the Russian financial situation. For several weeks, the media focused almost exclusively on that issue, frequently using declines in stock market averages there as a measure of just how serious things were. But then media attention shifted to other issues and largely ignored equally serious declines in the Russian markets.

For decision makers in a variety of Western countries, the shift in media attention toward and then away from the financial difficulties in Russia had three major consequences.

First, it meant that they tended to view the current situation in Russia as a temporary crisis rather than as a reflection of fundamental and underlying problems.

Second, this shift to and from meant that they focused on this issue by itself only for a brief time, inevitably evaluating it not just in terms of itself but as time passed in terms of all the other crises that these national elites had to deal with.

And third, it meant that even when national leaders were able to decide on a response, they frequently lacked the time to generate support among populations that all too soon were focused on other issues.

For participants in any particular crisis, this pattern of rapidly shifting media attention has tended to mean that they must make ever more dramatic statements in an effort to attract or hold the attention of others.

Such efforts by themselves can have the effect of exacerbating the situation, converting any situation from one in which participants can discuss problems calmly into one in which he who can attract media attention is likely to prove the winner.

And that had the effect of leaving many people in the position of losers both in the country where the problem is and outside its borders where there may be those who actually could do something to help ameliorate the situation.

Finally, for those who want to keep up with the news, rapid shifts in media attention have tended to leave such listeners overwhelmed, with some tuning out and a few even deciding that they can ignore virtually any crisis that does not touch them directly because it will soon be supplanted by an even more serious one.

That not only reduces the possibility that such people will be willing to support policies that might lead to the resolution or at least management of crises, but it has the effect of leading some in the media to use ever more dramatic language to attract some attention if only for a brief time.

And that in turn can mean that the rapidly shifting media coverage of crises by itself may have the effect of making them more difficult to resolve, a pattern no one involved really wants to see happen.