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This Is (Not) The Most Important Story Of The Year

News of Justin Bieber's retirement sent shockwaves across the Internet.
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News of Justin Bieber's retirement sent shockwaves across the Internet.

Have you spent much of the holiday season debating whether Justin Bieber really intends to retire?

No? Well, what about the question of whether Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson was rightly suspended for making bigoted remarks, or was in fact suppressed for giving voice to traditional values?

Stories like this have flared up throughout 2013, a mix of celebrity and mini-scandals. They may not have had much to do with war or peace or anyone's ability to find work, but for a day or two Americans found diversion in making fun of Bieber for writing a fan letter to himself in the guestbook at Anne Frank's house, or the way Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio seemed to struggle to drink water during his response to President Obama's State of the Union address.

Or, of course, Miley Cyrus twerking.

There's nothing new about silly stories getting a lot of attention, but the Internet has upended old news values that demanded you put war and the economy on the front page and relegate fluff to Page 18.

"There was a structural way newspapers kept all that stuff separated," says Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University. "The Internet totally annihilates that kind of structure."

If all stories are created equal, in the sense of each having its own space on a Web page, then the ones that get linked to and clicked on the most might be those that are more amusing or titillating than informative.

Even aficionados of hard news may be more likely to share via social media a funny video of a beauty pageant contestant flubbing an answer than the latest developments in the Syrian civil war.

News has always presented a mixture of information and entertainment, says Daniel Hallin, a professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego. Important events such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the deaths of Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher rank high on lists of this year's most-shared stories.

But in an age when the digital readership of every story can be measured, the balance has shifted more toward the fun stuff.

"News in general is just much more market-oriented than it once was," Hallin says. "Now, when click-through rates and 'most tweeted' become important criteria, the assumption is much more that you give people what they want to see."

There's nothing new about any of this. Local TV news has for decades adopted the slogan "if it bleeds, it leads" as a guiding editorial principle.

"We've always felt a need to grab people's attention," says Stephen Ward, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon. "If you go back to the 17th century, they had 'A fish with three heads caught in the Thames River today.' "

Today's media outlets are consumed with questions about how to interest readers and get them to share stories. The home page of a national news outlet might present stories about Pope Francis and tensions on the Korean peninsula alongside pieces about a celebrity chef using cocaine or a cop convicted in a cannibal plot.

"You go on the CNN Web page and you would swear it's a Dadaist performance art piece," says Thompson, the Syracuse professor.

The constant need to attract attention causes most stories to be forgotten a day or two later, swept away by the tide of a dozen other stories topped with urgent headlines.

Twitter is full of people apologetically linking to stories and saying, "You've probably already read this." If you're an hour late to a story, you feel like you might have missed out already.

"It used to be called trending but now it's so fast there's got to be a new word," says Pat Gill, who teaches media studies at the University of Illinois. "'That's so five minutes ago' — that was a funny line in Clueless, but now it's true."

Until recently, it was Marina Shifrin's job at Taiwan-based Next Media Animation to find stories that could stand out among all the noise. The need to be " first, loud and sensational" caused her to quit this fall, which she did in a dance video that went viral.

"After a while, it's just kind of mind-boggling," Shifrin says. "You take a look at what you're doing every day, and your bosses are telling you that you need to have stories about boobs and teachers having affairs."

Shifrin warns that molding coverage to what a mass audience wants threatens to diminish serious journalism. Pop culture stories are always going to get more attention than incremental progress in the status of forces negotiations taking place with Afghanistan.

"We're a society that's less interested in following serious issues than ever," says Ward, of the University of Oregon. "When a lot of editorial resources are being spent on this, rather than on getting below the surface of daily life and investigating serious issues, that's where I become worried."

That type of concern has long been with us. Tom Fiedler, dean of the communication school at Boston University, points out that there was a lot of anxiety that news coverage was getting stupid and frivolous before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

When major news breaks, both traditional and social media outlets rise to the occasion — or at least give important events the attention they deserve.

And outlets that appear to pander can offer in-depth coverage as well. "Buzzfeed went from almost all cute kitten videos all the time to making room for Obama," Fiedler says.

Thompson, who directs the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse, says that even frothy stories can be instructive.

Gay rights, for instance, is one of the leading stories of the day. Moments like the temporary suspension of Phil Robertson or the controversy last year after Chick-fil-a President Dan Cathy made comments opposed to same-sex marriage offer people an avenue for talking about an important shift.

Politicians such as former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner or Toronto Mayor Rob Ford who behave badly may get a disproportionate amount of attention, but they also provide a way to map the limits of socially acceptable public behavior.

"Things like Chick-fil-a are these entry points," Thompson says. "For a serious, important issue to make it into the frivolous conversation of daily life, it needs to pay a cover charge. Huge issues might get discussed, but only when attached to a fried chicken sandwich."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.