It is now more than a month since widespread anger erupted against gender violence in India, sparked off by the horrific assault on a young woman in a New Delhi bus. The protests were welcome. Some ambitiously described them as an Indian version of the Arab Spring, which had begun with a random incident as well—the self-immolation of a fruit seller in Tunisia—but eventually toppled old autocrats in many countries in the region.
Public attention is already drifting away towards new issues, led by the excitable television broadcasters. Many would be tempted to describe this lack of sustained interest in any issue as a typical Indian failing. It is not, as a great political scientist pointed out in a delightful essay more than four decades ago.
Anthony Downs wrote this essay (“Up and Down With Ecology—the Issue-Attention Cycle”) in a 1972 issue of The Public Interest, an American journal. He said that public attention towards any important issue tends to rise and fall in five distinct stages: “Public perception of most ‘crises’ in American domestic life does not reflect changes in real conditions as much as it reflects the operation of a systematic cycle of heightened public interest and then increasing boredom with major issues. This ‘issue attention cycle’ is rooted both in the nature of certain domestic problems and in the way major communications media interact with the public”.
Downs delineated five stages in the cycle of public attention. The first stage is when a social problem exists but has not yet captured public attention; often, the problem is more severe at this first stage than it is when it later grabs public attention. The second stage of alarmed discovery is accompanied by breezy optimism that the problem can be solved in a relatively short time, often with a new law.
The third stage is when citizens realize that solutions are costly, often to themselves. For example, we all love to complain about traffic till we realize that part of the solution is leaving the car at home so that one can take public transport. The fourth stage sees a gradual decline in public interest: Some people realize that change will hurt them; others get discouraged; most fall prey to boredom.
The fifth stage is “a twilight realm of lesser attention or spasmodic recurrences of interest”, according to Downs. Public attention is now generally low, almost on a par with the level of attention in the first stage. But there is one important difference: New institutions, government programmes and policies could sometimes have been put in place when public interest in a particular issue was high.
There are three characteristics of the issues that go through such an attention cycle: They affect a numerical minority, either a powerful minority, or a numerical majority benefits from the system that generates the problem, and the issue does not produce dramatic events on a sustained basis.
Downs was essentially describing what happens in the US—consider the recent rise and fall of the Occupy Wall Street movement—but his fascinating essay gives us a useful framework to consider the prospects of any sustained civic and policy action on gender violence. One can also use his framework to understand the attention cycle in India on other issues such as malnutrition, urban chaos, farmer suicides and environmental degradation. Of course, every cause is not a lost cause. The sustained effort by the right to food campaign to keep its agenda in the public eye is a case study of successful activism.
The role of the media is important here. “A problem must be dramatic and exciting to maintain public interest because news is ‘consumed’ by much of the American public (and by publics everywhere) largely as a form of entertainment. As such, it competes with other types of entertainment for a share of each person’s time,” Downs wrote, in a harsh indictment of journalism.
Public attention in India does seem to follow the cycle that Downs described. The media plays an important role in drawing attention to a social problem, but then its own unrelenting quest to create artificial excitement leads it to settle for vacuous studio debates while reporters scour around for the next fix to be administered to the great Indian public.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.
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