Why Canadian media’s obsessive coverage of US news irritates many

One curious reality that I observed after coming to Canada was that a significant percentage of Canadians – citizens and media alike – have a habit of being overly occupied with the goings-on in the US. I believe that most of the time, this preoccupation amounts to sub-optimal use of their time. However, when the American journalist Tucker Carlson ‘mispronounced’ Ottawa on air, there was some justification for Canadians to discuss it. As is often the case, telling right from wrong boils down to the extent to which they discussed this relatively minor topic.

By the time I saw a tweet by a prominent Canadian journalist on the issue, I was beginning to feel saturated about the whole thing. I replied to her tweet with words to the effect that wittingly or otherwise, Tucker Carlson had provided Canadian media with another distraction to ‘blabber about’, so that they could continue to ignore Canadian issues. The journalist responded, a tad indignantly, that she had just finished a whole one hour show without even mentioning Trump, but tweeting once about the Tucker story was being interpreted as if she had abandoned coverage of all Canadian stories.

My immediate reaction to this was that while she may have tweeted on the story only once, as a consumer of Canadian media, I was seeing the umpteenth message on social media froma Canadian journalist, saying essentially the same thing. Neither of us carried the dialogue forward.

This exchange reminded me of something that a Facebook friend of mine had observed some time ago: that we are now living in ‘attention economy’. This term perfectly encapsulates a concept that I had read on Charles Hugh Smith’s blog some years ago: People are spending more and more time looking at their screens, so every marketer is vying to get a share of their attention – but the hard reality is that there are only 24 hours in a day. While people’s daily routines vary a great deal, and therefore they spend varying amounts of time staring at their screens, the fixed number of 24 hours in the day puts a very hard ceiling on how many entities can manage to attract the eyeballs of a particular individual within each day. So in a nutshell, the marketer’s challenge is to catch and hold the attention of the consumer. Conversely, their other challenge is to select which stories / messages to put out for public consumption with their own constraints of time; there are only so many that they can publish.

On the other side of the equation, the consumer’s challenge is to make a series of very rapid judgments about what to focus their eyeballs on. There is not only a plethora of material to choose from, but new material is also constantly streaming in. Even when the consumer makes a split-second decision to skip an item on their screen, they make a value-judgment about that item. In fact, it is this value-judgment that drives their decision. This leads to a curious phenomenon: people have a strong opinion about stories / messages that they have consciously chosen not to consume. These opinions are less about the content of the story / message, and much more about those who bring the message. The old adage of ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ is valid in the context of the contents of the message, and not so valid for choosing which message to bring from among the many that are available.

The cumulative effect of making the same decision multiple times is one of irritation, which later morphs into intense disapproval, and then can easily turn into prejudice.Before we judge this prejudice unfavorably, let us go back to the words of the journalist whose tweet brought me to this discussion:

“…a whole one hour show without even mentioning Trump …”

This was, of course, a quickly formulated response, so perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it. On the other hand, this is a response from someone whose very job is about communication, so perhaps we can take it at face value. I am in the latter camp, and what this quote tells me is that for at least some members of Canadian media, resisting the urge to talk about Trump – and by extension, American news – amounts to an achievement.

From the consumer’s viewpoint, this is irrelevant anyway. Whether each unit / person in Canadian media devotes a good deal of time on American issues or hardly mentions it , the very format of the social media platforms delivering media stories & messages pretty much ensures that consumers would be seeing their take on these issues multiple times. The only variable at play is the individual consumer’s level of tolerance for the particular story / message appearing repeatedly on their screen. At some point, this limit would be reached for almost every consumer, because for each of them, it would have happened once too often. As I see it, this is the challenge facing the media in today’s world: How to be seen as a locally focused disseminator of news & views when the consumer is experiencing an overload of both.