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Columbia Journalism Review: The scandal attention cycle

How the media lost interest in IRS targeting, even as new facts emerged

-By Brendan Nyhan

August 1, 2013- At this point, the evidence on the Internal Revenue Service scandal is clear. Contrary to the initial hype, there is no credible evidence of White House involvement in targeting conservative groups or even evidence that Tea Party or other conservative groups were targeted exclusively. It turns out that the keyword lists used by the IRS to target groups applying for tax-exempt status for additional scrutiny also included terms like “Occupy” and “Progressive” as well as “occupied territories” and “open source software.”

Nonetheless, the scandal could have serious consequences for the IRS. As The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis argued this week, Peggy Noonan’s comparisons to Watergate may be hyperbolic but the reputational damage to the agency that she describes could be real.

The problem is what we might call the “scandal attention cycle.” George Washington University political scientist Danny Hayes has described how the “issue attention cycle” results in a surge in news coverage of a new issue like gun control followed by a fairly rapid decline, which received increased attention after the Sandy Hook massacre but ultimately trailed off, following a similar trajectory to previous high-profile shootings. A similar pattern often occurs for scandal—there’s a surge in initial interest as reporters rush to embrace the scandal narrative, but the press 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.

The coverage trajectory of the IRS scandal is a case in point. For each calendar week since the scandal began, I counted the number of total and front-page articles on the controversy that appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Politico, which are arguably the three most important sources of national political news and often set the agenda for coverage by other press outlets. (See the note on measurement below for details on the methods I used.) The results are plotted in the figure below, which include annotations of major disclosures in the case.