The media loves covering scandal. We don’t love telling you when the scandal falls apart.

August 1, 2013

That's the conclusion of political scientist Brendan Nyhan's look at the “scandal attention cycle.”

There’s a surge in initial interest as reporters rush to embrace the scandal narrative, but the media quickly loses interest after the most sensational charges are not substantiated. The problem is that it often takes time for the full set of facts to come out. By that time, the story is old news and the more complex or ambiguous details that often emerge are buried or ignored.

This isn't just Nyhan's intuition. He counted the articles that major media outlets, including The Washington Post, published in the IRS scandal. The facts fit the theory perfectly:

And here's just The Washington Post:

Wonkblog, I'm sorry to say, was part of the problem here. Early on, we covered the IRS scandal aggressively. Looking back, I think that coverage holds up well, including my initial report on the explosion of 501(c)(4)s and a piece I subsequently wrote arguing that "the scandals are falling apart."

But as the scandals actually did fall apart, we didn't really return to the subject. I remember, in particular, a couple of days where I meant to write about revelations that the targeting lists included the word "progressive" and the testimony that Rep. Elijah Cummings had released from a conservative IRS supervisor. The new information pretty much shut the door on the idea that there was a politically motivated, high-reaching effort to hassle right-leaning groups. But more pressing news kept intervening, and I never ended up writing the article.

The result is that Wonkblog readers heard more about the scandal when we knew less and less about it when we knew more. Not a great performance on my part.

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Neil Irwin | August 1, 2013