01/20/2015 12:56 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

How Does a 'Headline' Society Become Informed?

I awoke today to the following news headlines on my computer:
1. Islamic State threatens to kill Japanese hostages
2. Houthis take Yemen presidential palace
3. AirAsia Plane Climbed Too Fast, Then Disappeared
4. Part of Ohio Interstate to be Shut For Days After Collapse
5. Six Family Members Still Missing in Annapolis Mansion Fire
6. 5 Year Old Missouri Boy Fatally Shoots 9 Month Old Brother

Bad news is as old as time, but people constantly ask if the news has gotten worse or if 24/7 coverage has simply made bad news more available. And does anyone read beyond the headlines?

The first point is that we are drowning in "news." The proliferation of cable channels coupled with online news is akin to having an enormous hole into which "producers" need to shovel to fill space. Add to that toxic mix technology and you have anyone with an iPhone able to make news. Just send in a photo or story of anything happening on your street and call it "news." Blogs, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook allow citizens to post "stories" that garner attention simply because they happened, not because of their relative importance to other events. The sheer volume of news sources creates a tsunami of information but does not necessarily leave anyone better "informed" but simply "aware."

That raises some questions: What is "news"? What is "important" to know? How are we supposed to know what is vital to know? Setting a national and international agenda is near impossible in an age where everything is on-demand and everything is important to someone. There is breadth but not depth unless you go digging through the piles. Reading news is now like looking at the cover of book and saying you read it!

On the plus side, this news frenzy is democracy at its best. Individuals are empowered. On the flip side, we are living in the Wild West of news chaos. Nobody is really in charge, and the race is on for who can profit from content generation or claim a good-housekeeping seal of editorial approval. The journalistic environment is much like an auction in which the news item goes to the highest bidder.

As for bad news, there is more of it and more ways to share it. Yes, there are truly bad global factors, from weather volatility to terrorism, from economic downturns to cyber attacks. These are not manufactured stories, but they come with increasing speed on multiple platforms. Good news has never been as attractive as tragedy. The old adage about "man bites dog" being newsworthy still holds true.

So what merits attention today?

Well, tonight President Obama will deliver his annual State of the Union address. That seems important. How many people will "watch" it or live stream parts of it online -- or just wait for e-headlines? The trend suggests that fewer people will tune in tonight than in past years. Last year 33.5 million people across the nation watched it -- the smallest audience of the past three administrations. Fifty-two million watched President Obama's first State of the Union speech. Much depends on what else is competing for time and attention.

The onus is on the news users to prioritize stories. Do I care more about ISIS today or gun violence in Missouri? Do I have the patience to hear my president explain it all? If I have limited bandwidth and attention span, what should I pay serious attention to? The pressure is now on the consumer to sift through the headlines and glean the important bits and pieces worth knowing.

Let's hope people are paying attention to what is "important" and that headlines do not drive us -- or that we know where we are going.

Tara Sonenshine is former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. She teaches at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.