How Soft Journalism — that Offers Sensationalism, Celebrity, Crime & the Paranormal as News — Undermines the Credibility of Major Media Organizations, Drives Away Their Core Audiences, and Hurts Democracy
Programming choices at CNN and MSNBC during the first and second weeks of April served to further tarnish the journalistic reputations of the two news organizations. On the April 3 edition of CNN’s Larry King Live, it was more of the same, as King and his producers shamelessly dedicated another program to the paranormal, this time a dramatization of haunted houses. At MSNBC, the situation wasn’t much better. Between April 9 and 13, under the pretense of “investigative journalism,” MSNBC filled its 8pm (EST) weekday slots with programs detailing Satanism, exorcism, near death experiences, and psychic mediums.
In this column, I explore trends in the mass media that have made the paranormal — along with crime, celebrity, entertainment, and human melodrama — into standard journalistic fare at America’s leading news organizations. This new news, dubbed “soft journalism” or “infotainment,” is the media industry’s reaction to a nearly two decade decline in its readership and viewership base. Paranormal subjects are ready made for the soft journalism formula, as they mix high levels of human interest, drama, and sensationalism with unending story lines.
But at what price do we displace public affairs coverage with coverage of celebrities, psychics, and crimes? Although reinvigorated sales and ratings are the goals of soft journalism, recently released research from the field of political communication indicates that infotainment has actually accelerated the decline in news audiences, while serving to impair the public’s interest in and knowledge of public affairs.
Slouching Towards Soft Journalism
“Hard news” refers to coverage of breaking events involving top leaders, major issues, or significant disruptions in the routines of daily life, such as an earthquake or airline disaster. Hard news has traditionally been considered essential for an informed and participatory citizenry. “Soft news,” on the other hand, is news unrelated to public affairs or policy, and is typically more sensational, more personality or celebrity oriented, less time-bound (meaning that the traditional journalistic norm of “timeliness” does not apply), and more incident-based than hard news (Patterson 2001a).
Historically, a distinction between hard news and soft news was maintained through a number of institutional structures and processes including:
- The division of media organizations into separate news and entertainment divisions
- An assumption that public affairs programming would be free from expectations of profitability
- Trade distinctions between news and entertainment media
- Print layout and programming cues that distinguished for readers or viewers hard news from soft news
- A routinization of program schedules that placed a time orientation to hard news, with local news in the early evening followed immediately by national news, and then local news again at 10 or 11pm
- A limited number of television stations through the 1980s that broadcast news at the same time
- The professionalization of journalists
- Formal standard operating procedures for determining newsworthiness (Delli Carpini and Williams 2001).
Structural changes in the telecommunications industry and in technology over the past 20 years have erased what was once a “walling off” between hard news and soft news. Due in part to the ubiquitous adoption of the remote control, the widespread availability of cable and satellite television, the popularity of the Internet and World Wide Web, and the horizontal and vertical integration of the media industry, the public can now find news anywhere, anytime — or virtually ignore the news altogether, choosing alternative programming.
With increased competition, news organizations today are held to strict profit expectations, resulting in economic performance pressures that increasingly guide content choices, and staff cutbacks that damage product quality. This sea change in organizational imperatives has spurred a reconsideration of professional standards, with a new generation of media operatives who hold little allegiance to prior codes of journalistic ethics, and who fashion themselves as celebrity personalities shape shifting across the genres of news and entertainment (Delli Carpini and Williams 2001).
Government regulations that once mandated public affairs programming in return for the licensing of the public airways have been lessened, removed or ignored, and the integration of the entertainment and news industries by an oligopoly of conglomerates has meant that entertainment products are increasingly the coverage topic of news outlets (Bagdikian 1992; McChesney 1999).
These changes have led to an embrace of soft journalism across the media landscape. A recently released report authored by Thomas Patterson (2001), Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University, finds that soft news has increased dramatically over the past two decades. News stories lacking public policy content jumped from less than 35% of all stories in 1980 to roughly 50% of stories appearing today. Stories with a moderate to high level of sensationalism rose from about 25% of news stories in the early 1980s to a current tally of 40%. Stories that include a human interest element also figure heavily in contemporary reporting, accounting for less than 11% of news stories in the early 1980s, but more than 26% of reports today. The same holds true for stories with crime or disaster as a main subject, rising from 8% of stories in 1980 to close to 15% of stories today.
Programming examples of soft journalism abound. These include tabloid syndicated programs like Hard Copy, and nightly network newscast features on personal finance , consumer affairs, and health. The regular features of network news magazines Dateline NBC, ABC Primetime Live, CBS 48 Hours, and the made-for-soft-news spin-off ABC 20/20 Downtown, are notorious for their soft news formats.
Major print media outlets rate only marginally better than television at providing hard news over soft news coverage. The leading example of newspaper soft news journalism is the USA Today, which from its inception has adopted an editorial direction that seeks a “television in print” style, with a heavy emphasis on color, photos, flashy graphics, brief articles, and lifestyle, entertainment, and news-you-can-use coverage. Elite newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe have avoided the USA Today approach, making purposive editorial decisions to build readership through in-depth journalism focused on public affairs. Other newspapers, however, like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Los Angeles Times, have weakened their strong journalistic traditions by attempting to compete with television on television’s terms, and by combining business with editorial departments (Underwood 2001).
In the magazine industry, many publications have taken a soft journalism approach to public affairs; the most prominent examples include Talk and George, both of which mix politics with celebrity culture. Newsweek and Time routinely feature soft journalism cover stories. For example, across the eight issues released in March and April 2001, Time ran cover stories on phobias, yoga, Jesus (an annual Easter rite), how to a raise a “superkid,” and the death of race car driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
There is little doubt that the paranormal is an excellent fit for soft journalism. Stories about psychics, ghosts, UFO abductions, or miracles feature heavy elements of human interest, sensationalism, and drama. And due to the public’s lingering fascination, these stories are never in short supply. The paranormal also appeals to journalism’s “investigative” preference, allowing reporters to conduct “hidden camera” reports on faith healers, or put psychics “to the test.” These investigative conventions, originally employed in coverage of political corruption, or in investigations of workplace dangers, industry polluters, or consumer fraud, are now just as likely to be applied to fantasy yarns like the paranormal.
This is not to say that journalism that uncovers false claims related to the paranormal or the pseudoscientific does not provide a public service. In fact, if done well, some stories on paranormal topics can offer valuable insights into psychology and the natural sciences, and might actually foster an appreciation for the scientific method, or cold hard logic.
Still, if a news organization’s motive in deciding to cover the paranormal is based on the topic’s dramatic appeal, there is little incentive to provide scientific or critical assessment of the given claims. After all, where is the entertainment in learning that psychics are ordinary, UFOs are earthly, and that haunted houses are built on haunted minds?
Infotaining Ourselves to Death
As Patterson argues in his recent report, although soft journalism may bring some people to news that otherwise may not pay attention or be less informed, and even though some soft news might provide valuable information about fraud, safety, or health, evidence points to a net social cost. Based on collected survey evidence, Patterson argues that the news industry’s reliance on soft news as the answer to shrinking audiences “may be diminishing the overall level of interest in news.” He finds that more people (63% to 24%) are attracted to news because of its public affairs content than because of its stories about crime, celebrities, and the like. Also, the people who prefer public affairs coverage are 50% more likely to have a strong interest in news. Yet the study found that these individuals are also the ones who are most dissatisfied with news trends, and most likely to say they have been cutting back on their news consumption.
“The market research that tells news operations crime and entertainment-based news sells, may be right in the short term,” says Patterson. But over the long run, he argues, the media are undermining the overall demand for news by failing to account for the interests of those who traditionally have followed news regularly. “For more than a century, [public affairs coverage] has been the primary reason that millions of people each day choose to spend some of their time on the news.”
Soft journalism also undermines the credibility of news organizations. Consider the April 3 edition of CNN’s Larry King Live. Appearing the same week of the U.S./China stand-off over a downed U.S. surveillance plane, King and his producers opened with 10 minutes of coverage related to the breaking story. The program then shifted to 50 minutes of interviews debating the veracity of haunted houses, all in promotion of a new program airing on the Fox Family Channel. At each commercial break, clips taken by a camera rolling through allegedly haunted houses ran, supported by a background of suspenseful music, and complimented by testimonials related to the authenticity of the location’s haunting.
By opening a program with relevant coverage of breaking news, and then seamlessly transitioning to dramatized depictions of haunted houses, Larry King and his producers had pulled off the ultimate in professional relativism, shape shifting from public affairs reporting to pure entertainment promotion! If Larry King and his producers either fail to understand, or blatantly ignore, the difference between journalistic reporting and entertainment, how can audiences ever rely on the program as a credible source for reliable and accurate information?
Larry King’s penchant for psychic mediums, UFOs, and haunted houses is in stark contrast to other CNN programming like Inside Politics. It’s hard to imagine that veteran journalists at CNN don’t cringe with every additional episode of Larry King Live. Network execs, however, are captive to King’s nightly million-something viewers, unwilling to change King’s formula (or let him go), without a substitute program that is guaranteed to maintain ratings.
Not only is soft journalism simultaneously eroding the core news consumer base, while undermining news organization credibility, but a steady stream of sensationalistic news has adverse effects on public perceptions. For example, during the 1990s, when media coverage of crime sharply increased, the public came to believe that the crime rate was rising, when in reality, it was in steady decline (Patterson 2001b). Media coverage that sensationalizes coverage of politics and government also leads to decreased institutional trust and can minimize feelings of efficacy in the political process (Moy & Pfau 2000). Related to impacts on perceptions, an increase in soft news content minimizes opportunities for the public to learn about events that are relevant to public life and important to government affairs. Our “mediated” democracy is rooted in the concept of an informed citizenry, but if tales of celebrities, psychics, entertainment, and crime dominate news coverage, then the likelihood of a knowledgeable public stretches towards impossibility.
Doing Well, But Also Doing Good?
A public characterized by diminished interest in public affairs, distorted perceptions of current issues, high levels of distrust, low levels of political efficacy, and widespread political ingorance, is not only a threat to democracy, but also a threat to the continued success of news organizations and their parent companies. The continued embrace of soft journalism will ultimately lead to the end of journalism. Therefore, as Patterson asks in his recent report, is it possible for news organizations to do well and succeed in the marketplace, while also doing good?
Like so many other mistakes in the history of business, the resort to infotainment is the combined result of a short-term outlook on profit returns and a blind disregard to longer term market and social costs. The continued segmenting of audiences and readers into narrow niches is inevitable, but the societal need shall always remain for public affairs coverage, and consumer demand should remain if not completely snuffed out by the current practices of news organizations. “What is good for democracy, is also good for the press, “ writes Patterson. “In the long run, the best way to build an audience for news is through balanced public affairs reporting. To believe otherwise is to assume that people follow the news for its entertainment or shock value….A news habit takes years to create and takes years to diminish but, once diminished, is not easily restored.”
- Bagdikian, B. 1992. The Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Delli Carpini, M. and B. Williams. 2001. Let us entertain you: Politics in the new media environment. In L. Bennett and R. Entman (Eds.), Mediated politics: Communication in the future of democracy (pp. 160-191). New York: Cambridge University Press.
- McChesney, R. 1998. Rich Media, poor Democracy : Communication politics in dubious times. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
- Moy, P., and M. Pfau. 2000. With malice toward all? The media and public confidence in democratic institutions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.
- Patterson, T. 2001a. Doing well and doing good: How soft news and critical journalism are shrinking the news audience and weakening democracy — And what news outlets can do about it. The Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, & Public Policy at Harvard University.
- —. 2001b. The American Democracy. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 309-310.
- Underwood, D. 2001. Reporting and the push for market oriented journalism: Media organizations as business. In L. Bennett and R. Entman (Eds.), Mediated politics: Communication in the future of democracy (pp. 99-117). New York: Cambridge University Press.