Adjusting Attention: Learn to Unlearn to Relearn by Matt Kovac

Communication through electronic apparatuses, such as mobile phones, iPads, and the Internet, has helped make information more accessible over the past decade. As a result, the world has shrunk. So too have attention spans and jobs, unfortunately. The demand for stimulation through technology, such as Internet surfing and game playing, has become an expectation to be delivered at the click of a button.

As fast as technology has evolved over the last decade, industries are still trying to meet this demand while managing their budgets. Newspapers are such industries that have struggled to keep up with the quick pace of technological development while trying to balance their checkbooks. The result has become less staff performing more work.

As a newspaper journalism student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, I find myself having to deal with this growing trend. I am so used to the idea of just writing and reporting news as a story that it never fully registered how I will be required to do more than just conduct interviews and publish articles. More and more often, journalists, like myself, are burdened with the task of taking over photographer and videographer responsibilities, all the while writing and reporting news.

Cathy Davidson, an English professor at Duke University, brings up a similar issue newspapers are facing. In her book, Now You See It, Davidson says she notices a growing trend in contemporary mass media-cultured society: Multitasking. But multitasking is a fairly recent phenomenon in today’s world.  It was not more than twenty ago when the advents that paved the way for multitasking, such as the Internet and cell phones, did not exist yet. In their absence, selective attention was most commonly used for the purposes of gathering, interpreting and spreading information.

In Now You See It, Davidson points to a number of concerns associated with selective attention. For one, she says selective attention leads to attention blindness. And attention blindness leads to attention that “limits our perspectives” (5). Essentially, selective attention means people have an acuteness of perception. These people are so intently focused on one task that they literally are not aware of what is happening around them. Think of it as tunnel vision in which you can see what is directly ahead of you, but your peripheral senses are blurred.

Secondly, there is an “information overload” that we all are exposed to every day. Whether you are writing an essay on a computer while surfing Facebook, or getting your news from CNN’s Anderson Cooper on the television as you read a book, you are multitasking. And with so little time left in the day anymore to perform so many tasks, it would seem “multitasking is the ideal mode of the twenty-first century” (Davidson 6).

I am reminded of Davidson’s idea of multitasking when I started my first ever newspaper class at the Newhouse school in the fall semester of 2011. The class was required to produce a profile using only photographs and selected audio clips from interviews. My profile was on a student who worked as a residential security aide. To say the least, it was tough to make the student’s work look interesting when all he did was sit at his desk all night. But with different camera angles and points of view, I managed to successfully convey an interesting story about this student’s work. I then wrote up a profile about the student and drew much of my information from the experience I took part in with him. I reflected on that project, and believed that if I did not spend all night taking pictures of the student, I would not have written a story that was as colorful as the well-rounded visual perspective I had of him. The outcome of the project ended up being less of the narrowness associated with selective attention, and more of the dimensions attributed to multitasking.

In a second newspaper class, a professor told her students to write up a short story and make a ninety-second video of a newsworthy event. The students, including myself, reacted in disapproval. But we all complied with the task. I did a story on how ice skating at the Tennity Ice Skating Pavilion was the most popular late night student activity on campus. It was a lengthy and arduous task, but after a lot of time and effort, the project came together. And upon seeing my own work during class presentation day, I felt a greater sense of satisfaction and reward than if I were to have just written up a story about the activity. I felt like I actually cared about what I was learning.

Learning more is exactly what Davidson professes in Now You See It. She has a three-step process to get the most out of what one does not see: Learn, unlearn and relearn. Davidson says we tend to learn certain practices in life that favor selective attention, and we should, instead, destroy those previously ingrained practices and adopt new contemporary practices to improve multitasking efforts (19). But this is easier said than done. Davidson’s overarching goal is that we need to stretch our brains to adjust to the increasingly fast-paced standards of life in order to be alert to the events that happen around us.

However, multitasking cannot be applied in a holistic sense. In other words, it is impossible to be alert to all events taking place around us. Therefore, we need to rely on others to fill in the gaps in our attention. Take a look at the picture above, and ask yourself what you see at first sight. When I first saw it, a row of men appeared on the picture. But as I looked deeper, trying to see all aspects of the image, a row of pillars came into view. Much of my reporting goes like that. I cannot possibly understand all aspects of a story until I look deeper. And in order for me look deeper, I have to do research and talk to people. It is from these “deep” experiences that I am able to gain a better understanding of what is going on around me.

One of the exciting things about journalism is that different perspectives provide different results. There are always surprises to be had. I would not have that privilege if I multitasked one-hundred percent of the time, aware of the things that went on around me. So while multitasking is becoming a pandemic, I find that selective attention still has much value to us.  More often than not, I employ both, using selective attention in my investigative research and multitasking in my reporting. Even Davidson admits that both should coexist because, in the grand scheme of things, one builds upon the other and enhances our senses of perception. And that enhancement is the “improvement” Davidson, and more importantly, all of us, are looking for.


“Optical illusion” by user Sha Sha Chu (By Sha Sha Chu), Creative Commons 2.0. Retrieved from

“rog_eyeball” by user Rog Dor (By NecroRoglcon), Retrieved from

“Tunnel Vision” by user AhmadArsalan, Creative Commons 2.0. Retrieved from

“Voyeur” by user Andrew Meilstrup (By klarno), Creative Commons 2.0. Retrieved from

“What the hell am I staring at?” by user stillayngman, Creative Commons 2.0. Retrieved from


About kovacmj

Matthew Kovac is a senior multimedia writer attending Syracuse University. He is currently double majoring in Writing & Rhetoric and Newspaper Journalism at the College of Arts & Sciences and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, respectively. In his down time, Mr. Kovac reads, golfs, tweets and writes movie reviews to films he has seen in theaters on his blog, among other things. In addition to being a staff writer for The Daily Orange, Syracuse University's student-run newspaper, he has composed various multimedia works, including, but not limited to, Intertext (The Writing Department's magazine highlighting the best student work in the writing program at SU), video profiles and various graphic design projects. He is always stirring the pot for possible story ideas for any new project he has in mind. In the past, he has won scholarships, both at Broome Community College and SU, and has been an avid participant in after-school activities, both on and off campus. Matthew Kovac resides in Binghamton. N.Y.

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