Posted by: posey | July 20, 2009

Midterm: Is the increase of soft news in nightly news the cause of the “dumbing down of America”?

Will Nightly News Ruin America?

In addition to everything else that is happening to the press and the media generally today, there is ongoing criticism about what is supposed to be the increasing tendency of the media to report “soft news” over “hard news.” We are told that originally hard news was the only news that people read and saw, and critics say there is a new form of news today, called soft news, that is taking off in the media. The charge is that people knew what was happening in the world and what public policies were being adopted in the old system, but nowadays the media is preoccupied with gossip, infidelity in relationships and who is wearing what kind of outfit on the red carpet.

The truth is that nothing really changes. Soft news appears in the tabloids, the late night talk shows, the slick magazines and lots of other places. It also appears on the front pages of the daily newspapers.   According to a study by Patterson, soft news is going to destroy the United States because it is based on the superficial and sometimes sexual interests of the people, rather than what people “need to know.”  But who is to say what people need to know?

According to another study done by Baum and Jamison, soft news is better than no news at all. The question is whether soft news in the nightly news programs and on the pages of the few remaining viable newspapers will really affect the well-being and future of the country. My feeling on this topic is that even though soft news does not cover hard issues, soft news is better than no news at all, and people are still getting informed about what public officials are doing.

Hard news focuses on public policies and what politicians and public officials support and, according to Patterson, hard news is played less frequently than commercials on local news. I think soft news appeals to more people because it’s more personal, it dramatizes the news, and it breaks news down into small pieces and it focuses on the shock effect of news. Patterson’s article states that soft news is more sensational, more personality-centered, less time bound, more practical, and more incident based than other news. When President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky was publicized it was all over the news, and it received more publicity than his budget or his foreign policy initiatives or anything else he was doing. But this is a good example of how soft news is more popular than hard news. More people knew about the affair than they knew about the other things Clinton actually did while in office. And still to this day when you ask the average person what comes to mind when you think about Bill Clinton, they are more likely to say the Lewinski affair and that’s the affect of soft news over hard news.

On the late night talk shows, such as Letterman, O’Brien, and Leno, politics is discussed, but on a very superficial level, but they still interview and talk about politics and politicians and public affairs. Baum discovered that on talk shows, when they interview candidates, the T.V. host mentions a campaign related policy issue every minute, which is very fast compared to traditional news, where a campaign related policy is mentioned every two and half minutes. So even though the talk shows are mentioning issues at a quick pace, people are still getting some sort of information about the politicians. Which, in my opinion, is better than not getting informed at all.  I think it is more harmful to the general population to not have a little glimpse of politics, even if that little glimpse may be superficial. By seeing the nightly news shows the people are still getting some information about politicians and maybe because of the “softness” of the news people can relate to them instead of looking at them as some unfamiliar person. People can relate to the politicians and probably remember things they learned from the interview, or from the joke that was made at the politician’s expense, and these are all things they learned from watching the late night show.

The critics, such as the Doing Well & Doing Good article, say that soft news in the media will harm the future in the United States because the majority of the people will be ill informed about politics and public officials. The critics say that soft and negative news ruins the public’s perception of the outside world. These distortions, such as dramatizing of crimes and scandals, also make the world a less attractive and inviting one. And because of soft news, the public is less inclined to watch and listen to the news, because they have lost trust in the media. Those people, who are interested in looking at hard news, are also less inclined to watch the news because soft news is appearing more often in the media and the media needs those who are still interested in watching hard news, since it’s a dying type of media. Once news is corrupted by superficial and “useless” information, or so the argument goes, it will take years to restore the traditional old hard news. And since, 1980 we went from around 35 percent to around 50 percent of news stories that do not have any correlation with policy issues.

One can argue, however, that we are, compared to the past, overwhelmed by news, both soft and hard. For a great long time there was not any television news, because there was not any television. Anyone who thinks that there was a “golden age” of media reporting when newspapers were the only source of information and newspapers only reported what was established truth, and never commented on a politician’s morals, or personal conduct, or how he or she dressed, or whether he got drunk last night, or tried to pick up the waitress in the bar, has simply not read his history. Not much changes. There has always been good hard news reporting, and there have always been reporters and editors and owners, who reported and edited and published superficial and bizarre news, often because that was what sold newspapers. It’s easier to do that, and it sells a lot more newspapers.

William Randolph Hearst was an American newspaper bigwig who built the country’s largest newspaper chain in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Hearst empire, which owned and operated newspapers in San Francisco and New York, was built on graphic sensationalism, glaring headlines and what was referred to at the time as “yellow journalism.” Hearst specialized in sensational articles on crime, and he often published articles on public officials that were not “completely true.” The Hearst stories, and those from his principal rival, Joseph Pulitzer, were great examples of what we would call today “soft news.” And yet, somehow, the nation survived. And these two newspaper icons are today admired for their contributions to American journalism.

None of this makes what is taking place today good or “right.” It has been said that we get the kind of government we deserve. It is also true that we get pretty much the kind of newspapers and TV shows that we deserve. The television industry knows what we like, and they cater to those interests. They give us sex and shocking sensationalism and trivia because that is what we want to see. We, as a people, are bored with serious news shows. So we shouldn’t blame the industry.

But in the long run what is happening is not good for the public interest.  It is trivia, disguised as news. It may sell TV shows and newspapers, but it certainly does not educate the public. And in this day of complex public issues that require a focused national effort, the present tendencies in the news are counter productive.

President Barack Obama today struggles with many national problems: a failing public educational system, the most expensive and least effective health care systems among all of the civilized nations of the world, foreign wars that seemingly never end, the most severe economic collapse in seventy five years, to mention just a few. These are all difficult and complex problems that can’t be solved by easy solutions. When things get tough, democracies need educated people that have the ability and the willingness to meet the challenges. We participate in government. For this, an understanding of the issues is essential. For this, we depend on the nightly news programs. We get our news primarily from the evening news.  The daily newspapers, for whatever reasons, are failing.

Although the general public prefers sensational news and even though I believe that getting soft news is better than no news, our attention span is short. We allow only these brief few minutes to look at the evening news and try to figure out what is going on in the world.  And when those few minutes are taken up with superficial sensationalism, slick commercials and mindless trivia, our ability to function as citizens in this democracy becomes severely limited.  We are poor citizens because we are uneducated citizens.  In what is called a “participatory democracy,” we don’t really participate. And this is the final consequence of the infiltration of soft news.

Baum, M.A., & Jamison, A.S. “The Oprah Effect: How Soft News Helps Inattentive Citizens Vote Consistently.” Journal of Politics 68:4 (2006): 946-959

Patterson, T.E. “Doing Well and Doing Good.” Harvard University Faculty Research Working Papers Series (2000)

Blackboard Powerpoints.

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