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The Global Amnesia

December 11, 2014

Throughout November and well into this month, the number of deaths due to Ebola worldwide, and especially in the origin countries in Africa, has been accelerating upwards*, and the number of patients suffering from ALS, or Lou-Gehrig's disease, hasn't improved either. But judging from the things talked about the most in the media, you wouldn't have been able to tell any of that. In fact, if we just looked at how the public responds to events, we would draw logical conclusions that Psy is the greatest singer of all time, Darren Wilson was more important of a public influence than president Obama, and the soundtrack to Frozen was a better work of music than anything produced by Pentatonix. But no matter how many people may say any of these things are true, it doesn't change the reality; it only distorts it.

The news industry -- those who distribute information about the goings-on around the world -- is one of those who benefit heavily from innovations like the Internet and broadcasting, finding ever-more efficient ways to send out articles on anything and everything. We're at the point in advancement where if something interesting happens literally on the other side of the globe, I can get notified about it within mere seconds, and watch a live video feed of an event at a place I may never attend in real life. But even with this enormous resource to distribute information, it's simply impossible to talk about everything that happens in the world, and any reasonable news provider has to choose what to talk about when they act as the messenger of the public. When making these decisions, one of the factors that these companies simply have to take into consideration is the audience and viewership/subscribership that they have. Because this audience is their source of profit, the news companies naturally tend to choose stories that attract the most attention from the most number of people. Most of the time, this serves everyone well. This year's TIME magazine's stories on the Crimean conflicts, the passing-away of Robin Williams, and the Ebola healthcare workers were all important and perfectly timed to be the most relevant topics at the time of publication, often being within the week of the actual events that took place. But this continual search for stories that attract attention also means that no reasonable news provider can linger on a topic too long, regardless of its importance. I'm sure TIME could have written a few articles every week about the advancements and the challenges facing the Ebola epidemic, but they didn't, simply because if they did, 1) they would have had to omit other topics that were also equally relevant, and more importantly, 2) nobody, no matter how sincere, likes to read about only one story for weeks. This is the root of what I think is one of the weakest points of the media: the most relevant stories overshadow the most important ones. Many times, the two will have a lot in common, but that's not always the case.

Take the viral marketing campaign from this year, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge**, for example. The hugely successful campaign pulled in more than 23 million dollars in total for the ALS Association, but the buzz around the campaign and the disease itself died out just as quickly as it swept the Internet. It's not that the problems that originally called for this attention has been solved; the world just has a terribly short attention span, finding new interests within days and losing them right thereafter. When celebrities, the news, and the social media is burning up with stories of the Ice Bucket Challenge, everyone was excited to be a part of it, because everyone else was doing it -- who wants to get left behind? But the same thing happens when people start to move on. The media dropped it after a while, because you just can't keep running the same stories over and over again. And when people stopped talking about it, they stopped thinking about it, moving on to the next big thing, because nobody wants to get left behind. The statics unfortunately show this really well. Looking at how many times people search for certain keywords on Google, the search for "ALS" peaked suddenly this summer, between July and August, then it disappeared from the map just as quickly.

A quick Google Trends analysis shows our tendency to forget about important issues incredibly fast, before the stories can truly make an impact.

On a more serious note, look at how the use of the keyword "Michael Brown" over the year peaks at two main points, and then declines incredibly fast, once the media dropped it after the initial buzz. The points correspond to the initial event and then court ruling on the police officer involved in the shooting***. During those times, there was a lot of discussion -- productive and open or otherwise -- on the topic of racial bias in the twenty-first century. These discussions are still just as relevant and absolutely necessary, but the media stopped talking about it, and the majority of the world moved on, leaving the story behind for something new and interesting.

The problem is that many of these big issues today can't be solved by a few people or a single organization trying to raise money and awareness. 23 Million dollars is a lot of money, but it won't be sufficient to keep driving medical research for the coming years. The Ebola cases in the United States may be in the past, but the damages are actually growing in West Africa despite the health workers' relentless efforts. These problems beg for us to respond not just passively, listening to the stories and then moving on, but care about them and think about them actively, even as the rest of the world moves on to something more recent. Unlike Internet memes and viral videos, these stories can only make lasting impacts to our world when we refuse to let them go, because they still matter. The stories that we hear and the events that we talk about can and should be a powerful force in shaping our future, but that can only happen when we learn to overcome our Global Amnesia.


* Numbers provided by the World Health Organization: over 7K deaths as of November, over 16K suspected cases, with an almost 70% mortality rate.

** On which I have a different post discussing it in detail

*** On which I also discussed a few weeks back in yet another post