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Many in politics refer to the "24-hour news cycle", but what does it mean?

It doesn't mean that reporting of and commentary on fast-changing (or not so fast-changing) political events goes on during the night as well as in the daytime.

It doesn't mean that 24 hours is the length of a "cycle" either, because some political issues or events that are considered newsworthy, even very "live" ones, get covered in the media for a few days or sometimes even longer.

So both the "24-hour" and the "cycle" references seem pretty vague, to put it mildly.

What does the phrase actually mean?

Is it just a fancy way of saying that the mass media nowadays hanker to make political events "exciting" and "live", for which they require a fast pace of new attention-drawing elements?

If there is more meaning in it than that, please can somebody explain what it is.

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    I think it means that news is being broadcasted 24 hours a day and they need to find things to fill the time.
    – Joe W
    Jan 26 at 14:54
  • But most people sleep for the whole of the night. In any given country, political reporting doesn't continue to be "live-action" during the nighttime - it just rehashes for very small audiences whatever was said in the evening.
    – tell
    Jan 26 at 14:56
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    Correct but there are people on all sorts of different schedules and they still look for things to fill that space so things that used to not make the news do make it these days
    – Joe W
    Jan 26 at 14:59
  • Thanks for this. It would be great if you could post an answer summarising your take on this phrase, making it clear to what extent the different features come into play, in your view - round-the-clock broadcasting, different types of stuff from before, the filling of space.
    – tell
    Jan 26 at 15:12
  • "It doesn't mean that 24 hours is the length of a 'cycle' either" - that's exactly what it means. "some political issues or events ... get covered in the media for a few days" - those may just be exceptions. But, perhaps more significantly, updates are news - the Russia/Ukraine conflict has been in the news for a while because there has been a number of notable updates to that, which are each newsworthy by their own merits.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 27 at 9:49

6 Answers 6

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A problem you've hit on is that people use the term to describe two related phenomena, and you need to rely on context to figure out what they're actually bemoaning.

When coined, the "24-hour news cycle" was just a description. In 1950, there was precious few options to consume news, basically just the newspaper, an hour of television every night, radio, and the odd periodical. That changed with two major innovations, cable news and Internet. For the first time there was up-to-date news that people could consume, the minute it happened, 24/7. To answer your question, this is the older, "correct" use of the term you first see after the founding of CNN and its live coverage of events like the Challenger explosion and the Gulf War.

But people also started to use the term to describe a phenomenon that results from this kind of news cycle, which is that the pace of news has sped up in an effort to bring new stories and avoid feeling stale. As a result you have news cycles that proverbially only last 24 hours.

So political figures actually use the term to complain about two completely opposite things. If you feel a story is being overcovered, that's the fault of "the 24-hour news cycle," which needs to fill every hour or every day with news. But if a story is being undercovered, that's the fault of "the 24-hour news cycle" which has already moved on to the next shiny object. And then to confuse matters, people have a tendency to just use "the 24-hour news cycle" as a perjorative for any media failing, the way conservatives use "mainstream media" or liberals use "corporate media," etc.

If it seems to you then that no matter what happens you can blame "the 24-hour news cycle," well, you may have a future in politics.

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    +1 However, I would adjust the answer to avoid consistently referencing the phase in a negative manner. It isn't used exclusively as a complaint.
    – David S
    Jan 26 at 16:53
  • "this is the older, 'correct' use of the term" - "older" and "correct" are practically antonyms when it comes to language. New language replaces old language, otherwise we'd all still be speaking like Shakespeare. The current predominant usage is the "correct" one*, and that usage seems to be the tendency for stories to be cycled out of the news within about 24 hours. * Although all common usages of a term are "correct".
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 28 at 8:34
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    @NotThatGuy- Yes, that's why I put "correct" in sneer quotes. A lot of times when people ask for a term's meaning they want the "official" meaning, I was tipping my hat to the idea that there's really no such thing. Jan 28 at 15:31
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I'll give you my take on one particular aspect of this term - 24 hour news cable channels - but I don't think it's widespread.

TLDR: the emergence of high polarization results from the need to use editorializing and punditry to fill time. This is what I consider to be the defining impact of the 24 hours news cycle.

How 24 hour news started

  • When I was finishing up college in the US CNN (founded in 1980) was coming of age. It was the first 24 hour news broadcaster and it was glorious. If you were a news junkie you could watch it at any time and catch up with was going on in the whole world.

  • They were operating on a 30 minute cycle. Every 30 minutes it would loop back to whatever was going on. If new news came in, it was slotted in. If not, most of the cycle's content would repeat. So while it was addictive, it wasn't very sticky - you watched your 30 minutes then you'd be done for most of the day. There was no reason to watch 2 cycles back to back. A plane crash might occupy 5-10 minutes of that 30 because the rest of the news also needed covering. A 24 hour news channel that would mostly only be watched 1x30minutes or 2x30minutes, each day, even by devoted viewers was a pretty (self-)limited proposition.

  • Back then there was big question of whether it would be lucrative to run 24 hrs news channels. CNN also had a lot of on-location reporters adding to costs (reporters who could be affiliates, but still wanted $$$). And... they were mostly reporting facts, not giving their opinions. You could think of them as the Reuters of TV reporting, brief, to the point, mostly neutral.

  • There were no Anderson Coopers or Sean Hannitys back then. Anchors existed, but weren't national celebrities like a Walter Cronkite.

How to improve profits?

Obviously CNN's gamble paid off, you could run a 24hr news channel. But, how to improve profitability?

Their challenge, and the modification of the 24 news cycle, as I see it, isn't the fast pacing. News has always been fast paced. News also has a long history of sensationalism:

The term was coined in the mid-1890s to characterize the sensational journalism in the circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. The battle peaked from 1895 to about 1898, and historical usage often refers specifically to this period. Both papers were accused by critics of sensationalizing the news in order to drive up circulation, although the newspapers did serious reporting as well.

Their challenge is to produce 24 hours worth of varying, sticky content at reasonable cost. And even harder to do so on subjects that people find interesting. I.e. no coverage of sheep shearing in Outer Mongolia for fillers. American audiences aren't going to develop fascination with global news, all of sudden, except when it impacts the US directly. Or is noteworthy enough, which is self-limiting.

Fast forward to now.

  • CNN has a lot less on-location teams than they used to. Or rather, the proportion of their air-time that is delivered by exclusive, on-location, teams is much lower.

  • CNN "news the sh*t out of"* any news. Plane crash? That's going to be 3-4 days of saturation coverage.

  • Most of all, CNN saves money by not so much focussing on reporting itself as endless streams of pundits interpreting the news. That plane crash? You're going to get hours of aeronautics university professors, bereaved family members, union representatives, authors about airplane safety, all talking their little heads off to Anderson Cooper, in studio. Quite cheap (the professors and authors all get exposure from it). Since 2020? By Zoom to boot, less logistics to get the experts in.

The brilliant bit? It's very sticky and coverage can be extended for hours.

The problem

Granted, in the case of the 737 Max mess, extensive coverage of how Boeing captured FAA regulation to the point where the company got to decide what was safe enough might be warranted, even if most of the facts took a while to emerge. Arguably, a more "normal" plane crash would not need as much coverage. But rest assured CNN would put it on very high rotation anyway.

However, when that same extensive coverage has to stretch out to cover minor political events, day-in, day-out, it can also degenerate - as it has - to a lot of editorializing and pundits telling the established viewership the angles they like to hear, rather than just laying out the facts.

It is hard, inherently, to provide a lot of interpretation, or even "in depth coverage", while remaining fully neutral. Read Reuters - which more than most, cultivates neutrality - online and you will be struck by how short many of their articles are.

Am I down on CNN? Yes! I consider them lightweight, very partisan and with a low signal-to-noise ratio (lots of time used to cover not much).

But they have an equally dysfunctional counterpart in Fox News, founded in 1996, which also has hours of political commentary masquerading as news, from studio. Same reasons. At least as lightweight, partisan and time-wasting (to me).

I dislike one marginally less than the other, but it doesn't matter which one. In both cases neutrality is taking a back seat. Most likely, if you love CNN you hate Fox and if you love Fox you hate CNN.

Both work best when a good amount of partisanship is mixed in to enhance stickiness. They are essentially news talk shows for most of the 24 hours cycle.

This not-really-reporting aspect has even, successfully, been used in defense of news anchors by their own network:

XXX News again moved to dismiss. The motion argues that when read in context, Mr. YYY's statements “cannot reasonably be interpreted as facts” and that the Amended Complaint fails to allege actual malice.

At least under this format, rather than CNN's original short rotation cycles, polarization is the inherent consequence of the need to fill airtime over 24 hours. Cynical manipulations to increase audience stickiness by presenting more biased, sensationalistic, "entertaining" news can certainly make things worse, but is not in itself required.

* adapting a popular profanity from The Martian

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    one of the reason for the reduced on-location teams and switch to in studio punditry is that the requirements for live coverage have changed dramatically. just ~20 years ago you'd need a news van with highly specialized equipment and several people to get decent video and audio live -- because of that live footage was incredibly valuable since you got all the "clicks" just from being the only thing covering it.
    – eps
    Jan 27 at 1:22
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    basically, the mass proliferation of highly capable phone cameras has completely drowned out the value of having lots of expensive dedicated teams because no matter how many you have they aint gonna be faster than joe blow with their iphone.
    – eps
    Jan 27 at 1:34
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    Interesting remark. From what you say it works both ways - cheaper tech to do the coverage. But also less of a distinguishing feature compared to your competitors. There's something to that, but I also believe their switch in format predates ubiquitous cell phones by a number of years, even allowing for pre-2007 (iphone 1) dumb phone cameras. But, yes, "citizen reporters", whether they're uploading videos or writing blogs certainly has affected networks. And maybe forced them to "take a side" and "sex things up" a bit too. Jan 27 at 1:49
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    i think the clearest and most stark example is aerial footage. news corps would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year not only for the raw footage it got them but also for the bragging rights (and prestige, which translates into trust) that went along with it. Look at our shiny toy! But now anyone can do that for a couple hundred bucks, no one is going to care about your fancy helicopter when their neighbors kid is doing the same thing with their christmas present.
    – eps
    Jan 27 at 2:15
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    @eps However, wouldn't this technological change have affected on the air news channels, like ABC or CBC in the same way? i.e. less direct coverage, whatever the source, more editorializing? And, while the equipment may be cheap and sourcing abundant, getting actual exclusive footage may not be, even from Joe Blow. Jan 27 at 2:49
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Allow me to give the political psychology perspective on this...

Historically — by which I mean pre-1980s - news media was constrained by certain physical and physiological limitations. Televised and radio communications existed primarily at home, so news was either presented through print media like newspapers, or was compressed into 'news hours' over lunch periods, evenings, and weekends, as these were the times people could expect to be home to view it. These restrictions on news distribution meant that editors focused on high-quality information pertinent to their readers/viewers, and that viewers had ample time outside of news presentation to consider and discuss local, national, and world-wide happenings. This created the 'golden era' of news, epitomized by people like Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and Bob Woodward: clear and detailed presentation of only the most important news stories.

At technology progressed, media vectors became increasingly more pervasive in people's lives, from the ubiquitousness of radios, to computer email, to messaging apps, to the present surfeit of camera equipped phones that serve both to capture events and allow viewing of them in near real time. this created an opening for 'anytime' news, where people could feasibly keep themselves updated on breaking events at any moment of the day. News media organizations began looking for ways to capitalize on this new market, breaking out of the older 'once a day' model to provide constant, dynamic news content. All is well and good with this so far.

The problem that arises in this kind of competitive market is that it shifts the metric for success. In the older 'once a day' model, accuracy, detail, and informativeness were the measures by which people judged news organizations, because the constrained time-slots meant that news came out (more or less) all at the same time. A newspaper might put out an extra edition, a televised program might be interrupted with a news flash, but most people would not be able to do much with that until they got home after work and tuned in to the nightly news hour. However, when everyone has more or less immediate access to the news, the news provider's incentive is no longer accuracy, detail, or informativeness; the provider's incentive lies in being 'first', and in being dramatic enough to catch people's attention and draw it away from other providers. It changed both the way that news providers operate, and the way that news consumers consume news.

Ultimately, this procession led towards what we now call the '24 hour news cycle': a system in which news providers constantly (24/7) seek out 'news' that will stimulate and capture the attention of news consumers. The idea that news needs to be relevant or important takes a back seat to the idea that news needs to be provocative or titillating; it is first and foremost geared to drawing the viewership in, and only secondarily about being informative. The '24 hour' nomenclature has little to do with the time-span of a news story (though it's often interpreted that way); '24 hour' means that news providers are constantly looking for the next big thing, and prioritize their reporting on that dramatic appeal more than any more useful dimension.

I mean, for example, when I look at my own news feed I'm much more likely to see a story about a murder in a city 2000 miles away from me than I am to find a story about local government budget proposals. I'm clearly less affected by a murder in (say) Ames Iowa than I am by my own city council's actions, but it's pretty obvious which story is 'sexier'.

This constant, myopic focus on provocative reporting has created a number of social and political problems, from shortened viewership attention spans to a deficit in discernment that fosters widespread distrust of intellectual authority. Far too often wealthy and powerful individuals can distract citizens away from important issues simply by stalling and making the issue as boring as possible, in the knowledge that some new stimulating event will soon appear (or can even be manufactured) to draw public attention elsewhere.

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I think this has to do not so much with whether the news are published/shown literally 24 hours a day, but with the speed at which they propagate. Neither does it have much to do with when the target audience actually reads or sees the news, but with how quickly politician (and media) have to respond to them.

Previously, if an event happened anywhere around the globe, the politicians and leading news outlets were the first to know. The former had time to reflect and come up with weighted opinions, whereas the latter had a night to do some research and write up their articles. Now they have to answer immediately. An unfortunate first remark (or lack thereof) from a politician may have far reaching consequences - just remember how much heat G. W. Bush took for the first few minutes after 9/11 - the video of him sitting in the classroom was shown over an over in a cycle. Similarly, the journalists are obliged to come up with titles like Nuclear explosion at Fukushima before they learn what has actually happened.

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    Events happening worldwide have to be responded to in real time. That's all it means to me, +1. Like how Madam Secretary has to get up at 3AM because other countries are exchanging missiles over lunch, and she has to hold a press conference about it. It also reminds me to try and not be so American-centric.
    – Mazura
    Jan 28 at 0:20
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Let's back up and talk about news in general (I will talk mostly about US news reporting, but a great deal is applicable elsewhere). In the 50s through the 80s, everything was about "venerable" news reporting (ABC, CBS, NBC, New York Times, etc). Because it was so centralized, you had something close to "2.5" news cycles

  • Morning news - NBC's long-running Today Show is a prime example of that. Wake up and find out what's been going on while you slept. Newspapers would be outside your door.
  • Lunchtime news - Mostly local, it typically just reiterated morning news with local news (this is the "half cycle")
  • Evening news - Local and then national news (often national sandwiched between local). The national news anchor for the "big three" national broadcasters was a celebrity spot because everything was so centralized (see Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, etc). Many major newspapers ran an "evening edition"

News, of course, happened outside those windows and TV reporters sometimes had to adapt when news was actively breaking. This raw recording of the 1963 CBS coverage of the JFK assassination shows just how hard it was back then to cover live news (it took them several minutes just to get a camera up and running). In times of national tragedy, a lot of news went into extended cycles.

The idea of a 24-hour news cycle was really started with the CNN cable network, a cable channel dedicated to news and news coverage. While it launched in 1980, it really gained notoriety in 1991 when the Gulf War started and CNN was able to cover it live from within Baghdad

The Gulf War in 1990–1991 was a watershed event for CNN that catapulted the channel past the "Big Three" American networks in viewership for the first time in its history, largely due to an unprecedented, historical scoop: CNN was the only news outlet with the ability to communicate from inside Iraq during the initial hours of the Coalition bombing campaign, with live reports from the al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad by reporters Bernard Shaw, John Holliman and Peter Arnett.

At that time, cable TV was in a significant number of US homes, and millions of Americans could watch a historic event live as it unfolded, instead of watching a roll-up news report with clips within a news cycle (hours or days later). Fox News and MSNBC would launch in 1996 to compete with CNN within the cable news space, and thus the 24-hour cycle was now in force. Three news networks with millions of viewers could cover news anytime and anywhere it broke. The Internet would further accelerate this, with traditional print media now able to publish breaking news on their website.

Commentary

The problem for these news networks is what to show besides news coverage. What changed was

  1. The "2.5 cycles" that previously dominated news coverage all but mandated curation to limit people from losing interest. The 24-hour cycle didn't have to worry about that
  2. There isn't any oversight of cable network news. The FCC does claim some narrow oversight over broadcasters, but that refers to broadcasters sending TV over the airwaves.
  3. Viewpoint promulgation. A lot of this has to do with the consolidation of media in general, but it also has to do with selling a product to an audience. Fox News is known to cater to a more Conservative point of view, while MSNBC caters to a much more Liberal point of view.

What this has done is to help people become a bit more tribal in their viewing. As such, you might watch or read news that only feeds your current biases, instead of consuming content that might challenge them. In turn, the media becomes more biased over time to keep their paying customers happy. Commentators in particular play to their audiences, since they are not necessarily reporting on news.

Reactionary News

With biases playing a larger role in selecting content, plus a need to be quick in reporting (especially in the modern era of social media making instant commentary possible), it's lead to some bad reporting

  • Fox News wound up airing stories contradicting some of their guests and commentators after voting vendor Smartmatic threatened to sue over comments that stated or implied Smartmatic had helped people alter 2020 election results

  • Nicholas Sandmann sued multiple media outlets (most settled out of court) when they reported a story that a group of angry white teens wearing Trump MAGA hats were defused by a Native American Vietnam Vet. The reporting was based on one limited video and the account of the man who confronted the teens (the photo of Sandmann and Nathan Phillips would see Sandmann's life turned upside down). The man's background story didn't line up with simple fact checking, and later videos would indicate the boys were simply milling about while they waited, before Phillips approached the group.

    As one Slate commentator would later note

    None of this might have mattered—and the clip certainly would not have gone viral—if Sandmann and many of his peers were not wearing red Make America Great Again hats.


Most mentions about a 24-hour news cycle are complaints about over-coverage. You have people eager to deliver news, but what do you do when it's a slow day? Investigations take time to build into good journalism and there's always the deadline... Add in feeding key demographics what they want to hear, and you'll have people who tire of the press complain about the 24-hour news cycle.

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This is an outdated term that has no real meaning today. It once referred to the way we used to get our news, which was mainly via newspapers, TV, and radio. Those three media actually did operate on a daily cycle. Typically we got our news first thing by opening the morning paper, or turning on the radio or TV for the latest about what happened the day before and overnight. It truly was cyclical, but no more. We are awash in a constant, uninterrupted flow of "news" from multiple sources around the clock, 24/7. There is no longer such a thing as a news cycle.

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