By Brigitte L. Nacos
One of the most over-used words of the media’s talking heads and writing hands is the term “historic.” Unlike many other events and developments that are labeled as such, Barack Obama’s victory last November and the inauguration of the 44th U.S. president this week calls for the term “historic”: the swearing in of the first Black president is truly a huge milestone in America’s history that many people (I among them) considered an impossible dream when Obama announced his candidacy two years ago. In the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and actual warfare and threats thereof around the world, most Americans want to believe in Barack Obama’s promise for meaningful change—and so do many people around the globe.
No doubt, then, the inauguration of the next president deserves to be celebrated and reported extensively. It deserves to be a media event as were earlier inaugurations here and coronations abroad. For communication scholars, media events have a particular meaning; they are, as Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz put it, “preplanned and televised live” and “co-produced by broadcasters and organizers.” The media event becomes what James Carey called a “sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and communality.”
I wonder, though, how long a true media event can last before it loses a highly engaged audience and thus the potential for positive effects. Recently, Bree Nordenson wrote about a study commissioned by the Associated Press which found that participants who were exposured to news overload “showed signs of news fatigue, that is, they appeared debilitated by information overload and unsatisfying news experiences.”
As much as I look forward to President Obama’s inauguration speech and his taking the helm in the White House, I suffer by now from inauguration news fatigue. I am tired of talking heads in television--particular cable--and their colleagues in the print press who talk and write, when they have nothing new or worthwhile to report or comment on. I am tired of television’s annoying count-downs to inauguration day and teasers for non-stop coverage long before the actual event. I am tired of the speculations about cooperation and friction in the president’s “team of rivals.” I am tired of stories by witnesses to history who are coming out of the woodwork because they once shook Barack Obama’s hand or sat next to him or talked to his wife. Speculations about future politics and policies in Washington are fine as are human interest stories. But not in ever more replays.
To be sure, besides television, radio, and the print press, the Internet in particular contributes to today’s information overload in general and news glut with respect to Tuesday’s changing of the guards in particular.
But whatever the most significant causes may be, news overload and fatigue threaten to water down the positive effects of media events. If anything, the news coverage of the event will increase over the next hours. Tuning out till Tuesday may be the only hope for the appetite to return in time for the inauguration speech.