The Road to Public Surveillance:
Breeching Attention Thresholds
DORIS A. GRABER
Social scientists have identified numerous elements that make news stories arousing. But they have failed to explain why some news stories arouse nearly universal attention while others attract only small audiences. For example, when the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted nationwide surveys from 1986 through 2003 to assess the extent of attention to widely reported television news stories, it found that only a tiny portion of the stories—73 in 1,016, orypercent—had attracted “a great deal” of attention from 50 to 80 percent of the audience.1 These stories all had characteristics identified by social scientists as highly arousing, shocking audiences into some kind of action such as closer surveillance of the situation. It is puzzling that other stories featuring very similar topics and characteristics attracted maximum attention from far fewer viewers. Less than half of the audience, often much less, claimed to have paid a lot of attention to them. It is also puzzling that so few stories overall contain factors that are emotionally compelling enough to induce viewers to pay close attention to them and that so many stories about events with vast political consequences were so widely ignored.
What accounts for the difference between stories that engage the body's surveillance system—the warning mechanism in the brain that stimulates enhanced vigilance—and news stories that leave the audience placid?
Shikha Jain's assistance was crucial in conducting the massive content analysis per-
formed in this chapter. I am grateful for her help.
1. Based on calculations from data available at http://www.people-press.org/database.
html. This site is also the source for the data in this chapter's tables.