News attention spans.

This editorial is a slightly longer version of the one published in the December, 2018-February, 2019 Winter Print/e-Edition of Global Geneva.

WHEN  AN  AMERICAN  JOURNALIST  FRIEND – a  veritable gadget  freak  with  the  latest  technology  –  had his birthday, a group of us presented him with a T-shirt. It  depicted a boy surrounded by computers, mobile phones, headsets and drones with the caption: “The kid with the most toys wins.”

This  obsession  with  ‘toys’  increasingly  appears  to  be  the way  many private  and  public  sector organizations, including UN agencies, are seeking to reach out to potential  audiences.  Most important, their targets include our kids, the Millenniums or Generation  Z, who have been brought up with social media. There is now even a second post-2000  wave obsessed with smartphones described by some as the “snowflake”  generation; young people whose attention span melts at the slightest distraction.


Unfortunately, many believe that ‘informing’ the public can now only be  achieved through innovative  technologies,  whether  the  latest  tablet  or  generation-appropriate apps. Yet such short-cuts often come at a cost: the side-lining or even abandoning of credible content. It’s as if Tweets, Likes, Instagram, or YouTube alone will help people better understand what knowledge is all about, whether history, culture, science or  geography.

This is something that Global Geneva is particularly concerned about. So are numerous parents and teachers with whom we have talked, most of whom are finding it increasingly difficult to know how to remedy this problem. While mobile phone users may indeed scroll down on internet  visuals  or  texts, it does not mean that they are absorbing the  information. They whip through them. Nor do Facebook ‘Likes’ even remotely suggest that content is being  read. Growing numbers of schools, including in Switzerland, are now banning mobile phone use, some selectively, others completely.

While social media have revolutionized the spread of communication platforms, the  question at hand is whether we are more globally aware  –  or even informed – today  than, say, 20 years ago. For  example, do  Thais  and  Malaysians, who rank among  the  world’s most switched-on social media users with an average of five hours a day on their  mobiles, have a better grasp of what is happening? And if yes, does such access prompt  people into taking action? Or change behaviour, such as no longer using throw-away plastic bags which are now polluting the rivers, canals and oceans, or being better prepared for  tsunamis?


Being sceptical of social media is not a matter of refusing technological innovation. Cybertech is with us whether we like it or not. Yet in a world where ‘alternative facts’,  untruths and blatant propaganda are disconcertingly becoming  the norm, how can we  expect teenagers, who have never experienced the  comfort of growing up with  one or two largely trustworthy newspapers or a nightly TV news programme, to discern what is reliable and what is not? The Edward R. Murrow’s, Walter Cronkite’s or Richard Dimbleby’s of today no longer exist.

The  danger now is that we are at risk of losing an entire generation – or two – to false  news, triviality and virtual egos unless we can involve young people more effectively. For  the  news  industry, too, – regardless which side of the political spectrum – there will be  no future readers unless we do this.

According to some high school teachers, this may already be happening. We are failing to  help young people better understand the need for reliable information. Or to impress upon  them  the  importance of genuine – and well informed – civic, personal  responsibility. Clearly, many young people make the effort to be involved. The current anti-Brexit movement – both on the Left and the Right – in the UK appears to be heavily influenced by young people fearing that their future is being hijacked.

But many do not make the effort, often because they claim to feel ignored, or not included. This should not be an excuse to opt out. Most countries, however, are not like Australia where citizens are required to vote by law; and if you don’t bother for four federal elections, you lose your right for 10 years.

Courtesy of Cartooning for Peace Foundation, Geneva.


The ability to write is another casualty. As some universities are pointing out, growing  numbers of high school graduates suffer from poor reading, writing or even basic  communication skills.  As one American professor told me: “Some of these kids have no  idea how to write a proper sentence. Their knowledge is also superficial, based on  watching YouTube videos rather than reading books. For me, that’s a  problem.”  It  will also affect the way future entrepreneurs, civil servants, scientists and even teachers  operate.

Some US law professors are now banning computers and iPads from class, requiring  students instead to take notes – once again – on yellow legal pads. As Pew Foundation and  other media studies have shown, people have a far better retention rate of information by  reading off-screen or writing by hand. One leading British surgeon recently noted that while medical students today may demonstrate exceptional knowledge, they often lack the basic hand skills needed for sewing up after an operation. The same goes for airline pilots, who,  according to one veteran Swiss airlines’ instructor, are  trained primarily on flight  simulation rather than also an ability to fly a plane without computer support.  It is  doubtful that Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger would have been able to land US Airways flight  1549 on the Hudson had he not known how to pilot a glider.


Whether parents or journalists, we should be  investing in youth at the high school level by getting back to basics. This includes a greater focus on reliable content and global awareness rather than gadgetry as a means of making personal, informed decisions. During a luncheon with foreign correspondents in Berne last November, Swiss President Alain Berset made two significant points. First, he noted, not without jest, the Swiss take great pride in being “boring,” because “boring” means not being caught in conflict or insecurity. Second, more seriously, he stressed the critical role of independent journalism, particularly when viable democracies are under threat. Citing American author Henry Miller, he referred to journalism as being imperative to help nations “talk  to themselves”.

Of course, this is easier said than done. At a time when most news organizations are  struggling to gain new – and younger – audiences, only select media such as the New York  Times, Washington Post, The Financial Times, The Economist, Le Monde, El Pais and The Atlantic appear to be succeeding in re-establishing the role for reliable journalism in the public interest.

Much of this has been prompted by increased manipulation of social media. Or blatant lying and misrepresentation. People are realizing that a return to trusted media is crucial if we  are to counter such abuses or to remain informed. This is what we need to convey to our children.

Some news organizations are doing this by broadening the media platform but without  losing their focus on reliable content. National  Geographic, for example, which has been  around for 130  years, is fervently trying to reach young people through its use of platform-specific approaches such as Wattpad, IGTV (Instagram’s new home for ‘long-form’ video) and Snapchat. According to Jill Cress, the magazine’s chief marketing officer,  this is vital if they are to engage younger audiences. While NatGeo’s median reader age is  47, those under 24  make up only 13.4 per cent.

As a result, NatGeo is re-purposing its events and social media content. Already the most  popular brand on Instagram with 92.8 million followers, it is now adopting visual formats  such as vertical video, explainers and “over-the-top” (OTT) video. Its Snapchat subscriptions have reportedly risen to seven million members, 1.5 million joining last year  alone. The  National Geographic Society, however, has always been about visual content,  notably exceptional photography and documentaries, so this approach is not surprising.

It is a different matter with numerous other organizations, particularly those dealing with  artificial intelligence, machine learning, crypto-currencies, PR, propaganda, or innovative advertising. Only by constantly developing stimulating new technologies or formats, they  believe, can we ‘educate’ and ‘inform’ properly. This obsession with the latest bells and whistles is overwhelming, but also undermining.

What often appears to be missing is ensuring that in-depth knowledge with credible content be part of such outreach. Far too many institutions fear that young people will simply tune  out unless new enticements are designed to cater to their constantly changing whims and  attention spans. Actually involving them in a process to explore a broader understanding  of the issues at hand – and what is really at stake – seems  too  brutal  an  option.  But  this is precisely what needs to happen.

Edward Girardet is editor of Global Geneva magazine. A journalist and author, he has reported on wars, humanitarian crises and development world-wide for 40 years.

Global Geneva’s Young Journalists’ and Writers’ Programme is being currently launched for the 2018/2019 school year. While initially focusing on schools with English-language programmes in Switzerland, we eventually hope to reach out to international schools across the globe. For students, teachers and potential sponsors interested in this initiative, please go to: contact: 


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