Mapping Media Attention Span

The Lifespan of News Stories


The Lifespan of News Stories is a collaboration between Schema, Google News Initiative, Alberto Cairo and Axios. The project analyzes the shape of search interest data from the top news stories of 2018. By visualizing and categorizing the shape types into four groups, we start seeing patterns. For example, stories that are skewed to the right are usually unexpected events such as a celebrity death or a natural catastrophe. Stories with multiple peaks are normally longer in duration due to longer exposure in the media, such as the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation. Stories with broad national interest can have long tails or long ramp ups, such as the midterm elections. Finally, it is possible to visualize that news stories come and go with a certain rhythm throughout the year with the exception of a few gaps, notably during the summer school break and winter holidays. Explore the visualization.


Working closely with with Alberto Cairo and Google News Initiative, Schema came up with the hypothesis that Google search interest is a good barometer of attention span. After this, we started exploring ways to capture the dynamism of the news cycle by tracking spikes in Google search interest data associated with the most popular stories in the news. Seeing that some stories have more interest than others, we were able to visualize patterns in how news stories develop over time. The most common pattern is a shape simply described as a ramp up, followed by the peak and after by a ramp down. This shape can be skewed to the left or to the right, depending if the interest was growing slowly for known expected events, or if it was a quick ramp up for sudden unexpected events. In other cases we would find patterns with two or more peaks for events that had longer exposure in the media. Being able to categorize news stories by these shape types provided interesting context and became the guiding principle in our analysis. Axios joined toward the end of the process, providing articles on the most relevant events of 2018.


As a result of this process, The Lifespan of News Stories captures what was in the American’s mind during 2018, as well as introducing a different way to explore news stories. Curious readers can spend hours going over the different visualizations in the article and compare the shapes of the events that defined the year. Explore the visualization.


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