Make no mistake about it, journalists love a crisis. Not because they enjoy the suffering a crisis can cause, but because a crisis fulfils all the criteria for a news story.
It is new, perhaps unique. It has drama, the “gosh” factor. It is about people. For all those reasons, it does exactly what a journalist wants – it grabs the readers, listeners and viewers.
That is why the traditional media go big on a crisis. Or go overboard, in some people’s view. It offers the chance for sensational headlines, frenzied speculation and perhaps the public pillorying of a powerful figure or two.
The natural lifespan of a crisis is difficult to predict. Spin doctors, for example, trying to play down a crisis, will assure their masters that no story will survive beyond a few days. Usually they are right. Other stories, like the BP explosion and oil spill In the Gulf of Mexico, stay in the headlines for weeks, constantly prodded back into life by a further revelation or another bout of speculation.
In all this, the competitiveness of the traditional media must never be underestimated. Foolish, and possibly jobless, is the news editor who tires of a crisis too early. “This story still has legs” is a familiar cry in a newsroom, and leaving the public appetite for more information unsatisfied is a sure way to turn off your customers.
The customers, though, are perverse. They can often be heard in the queue at the newspaper shop, complaining about “excessive” coverage of a crisis. “All you hear about is bad news”, they say as they sit glued to the rolling news channels, watching another crisis unfold.
In the end, how deeply and for how long the traditional media continue to cover a crisis is dictated by the public appetite for bad news. And that shows no sign of abating. Schadenfreude, they call it.