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Attention and Visibility

April 2, 2011

The attack on the UN in Mazar-I-Sharif came as shock because I, like almost everyone, hadn’t heard about the Koran burning incident on 20 March.

Despite the rhetoric of global transparency we rely on media organizations to gather and disseminate news and despite changes in the media environment the logic of agenda setting continues to operate – already dealing with Libya and Fukushima the news system couldn’t also allocate attention to Pastor Jones.  It was striking that even as the reports of yesterday’s attack came in googling Koran burning brought up stories from last September not March.

On the other hand even if my network of news sources didn’t pull my attention to the events of 20th March enough information about it was out there for people who were sensitive to it.   According to the New York Times today video of the event was shown on TV in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One of the earliest findings of systematic communication research was that people are selective in what they pay attention to.  In an era when we select the news sources that we use,  its not just that people will read different stories in the same media,  we are permanently in danger of being blindsided by people who are plugged into different sets of media sources who are reacting to a different reality.

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