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Q: It feels as if important stories can fade to obscurity fairly quickly and be replaced by something more eye-catching. Is this ever done on purpose?

Credit: xinem (Creative Commons)
A:

You are absolutely correct. I am often amazed at how quickly an interesting story that impacts a huge number of people drops off the radar. 

When a story has developments that feed the coverage over many days or even weeks, it is said that the story “has legs.” Those developments could include a suspect on the loose, new charges, civil lawsuits, or sources who weren’t reached in the initial story coming forward to speak publicly. 

Journalists typically love to work on stories with legs because they don’t want to put a lot of time and effort into articles that don’t get much attention and then fade into obscurity.

But savvy sources and public relations firms can play the system to their advantage. It’s a well-known tactic to release a so-called “document dump” at 6 p.m. on a Friday, right when most journalists are trying to leave the newsroom to start their weekend. Releasing documents at that time is a great way for them to get lost in the news cycle because they will get only superficial coverage from the journalists working the weekend shift. By the time news organizations are fully staffed again on Monday, those documents are old news. 

A fast-paced news cycle can also be used to dilute a story’s impact. Let’s say a public figure has some unflattering information to release. It would be smart to do it during a big, breaking national story. Imagine, for instance, that a politician reveals and apologizes for misusing campaign funds — in the hours after an unrelated mass shooting. That revelation gets lost in the coverage of the bigger story. 

Media watchers and the president’s former campaign manager have alleged that President Donald Trump has used the news cycle to his advantage. Given his bully pulpit, he can dominate the news cycle and divert attention from unfavorable coverage simply by saying something incendiary.

So while it’s impossible to know anyone’s intent, it is true that savvy actors can benefit from the fast-paced and chaotic reality that is today’s news cycle.