Posted by: kzahka | July 20, 2009

Midterm Assignment

I did the question on soft news and its effect on society:

With time, there has been a shift in our nightly news programs from hard news to soft news. Not only does this shift illustrate the changing viewing preference of the general public, but it also alludes to the blurring lines between hard and soft news. This blurred line is creating a new type of news—infotainment. This increase in the desire for soft news and “infotainment” over hard news has certainly affected our society, whether it be in a positive or negative way.

According to Dictionary.com, hard news is defined as, “news dealing with formal or serious topics and/ or events,” while soft news is the contrary. Hard news generally refers to news and events that are reported immediately. On the other hand, soft news provides background information, gossip, and human-interest stories. This line between hard and soft news becomes continually vague as news stories now can be surrounding a politician’s personal life, for example. Politics is hard news, but an individual’s personal life should be considered soft news. However, should the personal life of a politician be considered serious, hard, news because of their position? It is hard to define. This brings up the subject matter of “infotainment,” and what exactly it contributes to society.

There are three main theories that have surrounded the study news and its effects on society: Direct Effects Model, Minimal Effects Model, and Contingent Effects Model. While the three of these models are structurally different, all ultimately come to the same conclusion—the media possesses the power to influence the public.

The Direct Effects Model is based on the idea that the audience receives information from the media and wholly accepts it. This claim may seem completely irrational, but there is evidence that may support it. For example, with the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, there has been speculation that the articles published beforehand stating that he should be killed were if not the cause, were at least a major influence in his death. Another example of the media’s words being taken literally can be seen in the War of the Worlds of 1938, where Orson Welles conducted a science-fiction radio broadcast explaining that aliens were invading Earth. The problem with this broadcast was that a great deal of the general public perceived it as truth, and responded in panic. While I would like to believe that this theory does not still apply today, it seems as though there might still be some truth within it. I do not believe that if Orson Welles broadcast were to be aired again in the present time, people would react in the same manner. I like to believe that people today are harder to convince:

http://news.cnet.com/Could-the-War-of-the-Worlds-scare-happen-today/2100-1025_3-6216098.html

This article claims that the average American is much too cynical in today’s world to be convinced of something of this nature, and that stories are much more quicker to be debunked or discredited than they were in 1938. However, perhaps the increase in soft news reporting, if manipulated correctly could cause a similar result. In reporting on things that can cause an emotional reaction, it might be possible to create frenzy. Look at the “War on Terrorism,” for example. This entire country was convinced that Sadaam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and probably was so easily convinced of this not only because our government told us so, but because we had so much emotion invested in the events of September 11, 2001. When it comes to the matter of mass influence, I think the media has the power to persuade the general public, perhaps not to the same degree as described in this theory, but should be careful nonetheless.

The second model we have discussed is the Minimal Effects Model. This model attempts to explain that the media’s messages have little to no effect on individual behavior. The example provided to support this claim is the People’s Choice Study of 1944. In this study it is revealed that the media has little effect on the public’s voting record. In the election campaign at the time, the researchers concluded that people had already made up their minds and that the mass media could not change them. Similar to the first model discussed, I think this model, too, must be taken with a grain of salt. I do not believe that the media has no effect on individual behavior or opinions. The People’s Choice Study argues that people had already made up their minds, and the media could not influence them. However, what information provided them with their original opinions. Did these people have their minds set on one candidate based on information that was provided by the media in the first place? Most likely. Again, I think this model is subject to the differences between hard and soft news. In last years election, for example, I think this model can apply. Most people were either McCain supporters or Obama supporters, and pretty much stayed that way. However, at the same time, there was so much emotion surrounding last year’s election, so much drive in the American public for change after the last eight years of George W. Bush. The type of news reporting could definitely trigger this emotion. I am not going to sit here and say that the general public voted purely on emotion, but I think in elections of this nature, the abundance of soft news could either help or hinder a candidate. I would be interested to see if the average person made general assumptions of either candidate based on their emotional beliefs, or what they saw in other people in media outlets, rather than the hard facts surrounding the candidate. I found the following study online, about emotional involvement in the 2008 election that I think is quite interesting:
http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/3/1/4/5/0/p314503_index.html

The third and final model is the Contingent Effects Model. This model is based upon the belief that the media produces more than minimal effects. In fact, the media may not tell people exactly what to think, but does tell them what to think about. The media has the privilege of handpicking what stories are aired or written, and how much attention is given to a particular story, as well as its presentation. Since the media has this privilege, effects such as “Mean World Syndrome” can occur. This syndrome is the theory that the average person feels that the world is more dangerous than it actually is due to the increased coverage of crime and violence and its exaggeration through media outlets. We cannot forget that the media is a business in itself, and needs high ratings in order to keep its advertisers, and in order to make money. Whether they pick certain stories for amusement, the shock factor, or because of a personal or company bias, their selection can be quite influential. Of the three models, this seems to be the most rational and the most practical. One thing we have been noticing recently in the media’s selection of attention is again, this major shift in soft news coverage rather than hard news. This month, the death of Michael Jackson has taken over the news outlets and has outweighed the coverage of hard news items such as Iran. Is this occurring due to the public’s shift in desire for soft news, or is the public just used to absorbing so much soft news because of the media’s coverage? What came first, the chicken or the egg? The following article discusses a 2001 study researching the influence of increasing soft news:
http://www.hks.harvard.edu/news-events/news/press-releases/new-study-indicates-soft-news-and-critical-journalism-are-eroding-audiences-and-weakening-democracy

This study argues that the increase in soft news over hard news is “diminishing the overall level of interest in news.” The average person has become more interested in sensationalized stories than facts, and it shows. I can speak from experience that the majority of my girl friends here at school check Perez Hilton at least three times a day, but probably could not tell me anything President Obama has done since his term began. Even in last year’s election, I would get so frustrated with some of my peers for having opinions on either candidate that had no basis—opinions that were formed either due to word of mouth, or what they heard on E! News, (which is clearly a reliable source). It is things such as this that seriously concern me about our generation. The difference in conversation between my peers in my political science classes, and of friends in different majors is alarming. Sure, the people in the political science classes are taking them because of their natural interest in the subject matter, but there are certain things that every American should know, and should be informed about. It is scary to me that more people could answer a question like who a celebrity is currently dating, than name the two senators from their home state. I think the general public seems to be becoming lazy, and if the news is not thrown in their face, they are not going to go look for it. Perhaps to some, news about the government is boring, and for that reason alone they are not interested. I like to think that with the 2008 election, the interest in serious news has resurged, but I’m pessimistic to believe such a thing. It’s hard to believe that the general public wants serious facts to base their opinions, when I know my grandmother voted for Obama because he is “so tan and handsome,” and one of my friends voted for McCain purely because he did not want to vote for who “everyone else was voting for.” This attraction to soft news was even utilized in the 2008 election by the McCain campaign in their advertisements against Obama:

Additionally, this study shows that with the increase of available news outlets, the average person has not increased their knowledge of current affairs:
http://people-press.org/report/319/public-knowledge-of-current-affairs-little-changed-by-news-and-information-revolutions

Perhaps this desire for soft news is purely human nature; maybe it will never change. Regardless, I think the media has an obligation to provide information in a non-dramatic, objective manner. Sensationalized news stories sell papers and increase ratings, but over time, will affect audiences in a negative way. With human nature already being attracted to controversial things, by increasing the output of soft news, the media is only making it worse. I think a combination of all three theories discussed, coincided with this shift in soft news, can be used to explain this phenomenon. Some people do believe everything they hear (Direct Effects Model), and some people are unaffected (Minimal Effects Model). On top of this, controversial stories appeal to everyone—it’s our nature (Contingent Effects Model). It does not matter if one of these models applies to one person or a million people. As long as the media has the power to influence at least one person, they should be careful. With this increase in soft news, I worry for my generation, and generations to come as they are developing poor habits in regard to public information. We are lucky to be exposed to so much technology in today’s society, but I feel as though we do not take advantage of it. The study above reveals that with more media outlets, the general public has not increased knowledge of current affairs. We have the opportunity for this increase in knowledge, and yet it is not happening because of the focus on soft news rather than hard news. This new type of news—infotainment, seems to be taking over with the average person not consciously realizing they’re being subject to soft news rather than hard news, and I believe the media has the power to stop it.

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