The Issue Attention Cycle

While reading Libby Lester’s Media and Environment as research for an essay, I came across a section where she writes about another author’s work which I found very interesting. Published back in 1972, Anthony Down’s book is called Up and Down With Ecology – The Issue Attention Cycle. He theorized that any ecological issue goes through a 4 stage cycle in terms of media publicity and consequential public attention. Here’s a summary:

  1. Pre-problem stage: The problem does exist but only specialists and some interested groups know about it. 
  2. Alarm and enthusiasm: After a series of dramatic events and media coverage, the public is alarmed by the issue and solving it is what everyone’s talking about.
  3. Realizing the cost: The public realize the various costs of solving the problem, and realize they may actually be beneficiaries of the continuing problem. Public concern diminishes as new issues rise up the agenda.
  4. Post-problem stage: The issue is no longer prominent but some institutions, policies and programs that were instigated in stage 2 will persist.

Downs’ adds that an issue will be closer to being solved if it goes through the cycle than not, even if most people forget about it rather quickly. An example of stage 3 is given in the form of cars… Cars cause smog, carbon emissions and infuriating traffic jams, and yet their rejection doesn’t get too much support because most of us rather like being able to nip into town in our own vehicle. If you think about it, a lot of us are beneficiaries of many of the world’s problems. For another example, if fair-trade standards were enforced everywhere, we’d have to pay a hell of a lot more for our mango juice and this season’s must-have fashions.

Lester goes on to say that ”this model can only take us so far”  because anything this linear is going to be an over simplification of the reality. This is a fair point, as of course issues aren’t neatly solved or ignored without consequence, they resurface and evolve into other problems, and undergo dips and surges of public awareness… It’s complex, because the world is complex. But I do think Downs’ offers a thoughtful way of explaining what happens with public issue attention. Perhaps we could add in a new stage between 3 and 4 –

3.5. Pointing out alternatives stage: At this point NGOs and other groups point out alternative ways of meeting the need currently filled by what’s also causing the problem. If the alternatives are workable, public attention remains set on tackling problem.

For the example with the cars, the alternatives would be a revitalized public transport system with a much more frequent schedule and much cheaper fares, subsidized by the money freed up from decreased highway maintenance and accidents.

I think this is really the crux of it- people seem to be worried that if we fix our environmental problems, they’ll be missing out. Their lives will be less convenient, less comfortable, more frugal and even backward. Let’s not be judgmental here, let’s be honest- no one wants that kind of life. Even if it’s the Right Thing To Do. Luckily, it’s actually an urban myth that life will be that way if we fix our issues. What we need to do is make it clear that there are other ways to tend to our needs. And not even just basic survival needs, but contemporary ones too. It’s not only possible to survive without pillaging the planet and exploiting other people, it’s possible to have a Youtube account and nice shoes as well. With our media, our art and our music, we need to paint a picture of what life could be like if we globally sorted ourselves out a bit. And we need to make it so enticing, that the swathes of people who don’t really care, who are are satisfied, ignorant, or are just having a hard time keeping afloat as it is, will be compelled to jump in and make it true.

Let’s break the cycle and make ”Making a Fantastic Super Awesome Future” at the top of everyone’s agendas.


3 thoughts on “The Issue Attention Cycle

  1. Interesting information which resonates with how I view the situation as well. One example I shake my head at is flood zones. When you lose your home every few years, why build there again? It just costs money, you have to use natural resources to rebuild, replace every thing you lost…

    The subject of cars in the US is a touchy one. We believe it’s a lifestyle we are entitled to and like to travel extensively. Breaking the connection between myself and my car took a couple of years. I wasn’t using it often but couldn’t see being without it all together. It may take time, but if we start the conversation now, maybe in a few years people will start to envision a new way of getting around.

    • Thank you for your comment :) Yes I have heard Americans tend to be even more culturally attached to their cars than we Brits are. Although I believe we should reduce our car use and car pool etc, to be honest I can’t see the disappearance of private cars being something that happens voluntarily. They are incredibly useful. I think we should be looking into changing from diesel/petrol run cars to electric cars, with the electricity being 100% renewable powered…

      • I agree I don’t see the disappearance of the private/family car any time soon. I would like to see more people think it through before jumping to buy a new car. Most of the time the decision is rash and buyers remorse follows.

        Electric cars are a long way off in this part of the country. There are zero charging stations in my state. So the infrastructure has to change to allow these technologies to be accepted.


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