The Lifespan of News Stories

How the news enters (and exits) the public consciousness
Schema Google News Initiative Axios

Which stories stay longest in the public view, and which ones fade away?

    In today’s “attention economy,” attention is a resource. Furthermore, trust in the media is at an all-time low—arguably the effect of the polarization of the political landscape and the spread of “fake news” in the Trump Era. Given this shifting media landscape, which stories still hold our attention? Knowing which events persist in public memory and which ones fade away can give us greater insight into the direction society is evolving.

    One way to gauge public attention is by measuring a story’s “search interest” over time, based on Google search data. Due to its volume, search interest can be a good proxy for the public's interests. This visualization explores search interest across the United States around various news events, curated by Axios. In addition, the stories are aggregated by category, including Politics & Elections, Natural Catastrophes, Environment & Science, Social Issues, Violence & War, and Obituaries. The form and size of the search interest plots depict how public interest unfolds over time.

    Where does interest in stories originate, and how do stories spread?

    Examining where searches occur can reveal regional differences in event interest. News stories for natural catastrophes tend to attract the highest interest from the places most affected. For example, the greatest concentration of searches for Hurricane Florence came from regions along the eastern seaboard directly in its path. Events that influence the whole country, like the Midterm elections in November 2018, exhibit more uniform search interest across the entire United States.

      Is there a topical relationship between the shapes of search trends?

      The shapes of the plots can tells us more about the nature of attention to the topic. The duration of news events is dependent on the speed at which an event develops, and whether or not its outcome was expected. The North Korea summit, for example, was in the news in the lead up to the event, and continued to be reported on afterwards, producing a symmetrical interest plot. An event like July's blood moon, by contrast, was rarely mentioned after the fact, resulting in a leftward skew in the plot. An unexpected event, on the other hand, like the death of Anthony Bourdain, can yield a rightward skew in the plot as the public continues to process unanticipated information. Lastly, some events can even produce multiple peaks, like the government shutdown of January 2018 that was followed by the threat of a second shutdown in early February, resulting in a bimodal search interest plot.


      Steady climb, steady fall

      This reflects a news event that was anticipated ahead of time, and continued to capture interest afterwards, like the North Korea Summit.

      Skewed left

      Slow climb, quick fall

      This is an anticipated or ongoing event that ended with a simple conclusion, like July's blood moon.

      Skewed right

      Quick climb, slow fall

      This reflects a sudden, and unexpected news event, like the Missouri Duck Boat tragedy.


      Multiple peaks

      This is an important event that later spawned a secondary reaction or addition, like the government shutdown in January 2018 that was followed by the threat of a second shutdown in early February.