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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Soft News and Political Engagement

Unit V -the Media and Social Capital

Soft news

Erin Merriman,Soft News, the Rise of Critical Journalism, and How to Preserve Democracy
Patterson, Thomas E. 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. John F. Kennedy School of Government: Harvard University, 2000.
Postman, N. (1986) Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. London, United Kingdom: Heinemann.
Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Robinson, M. J. (1976) Public affairs television and the growth of political malaise: The case of "the selling of the Pentagon". The American Political Science Review
Baum, M. A. (2002a). Making politics fun: What happens when presidential candidates hit the talk show circuit. Paper presented at the 98th Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, MA.

“We live in an era with a plentitude of information but a paucity of understanding.”
– Joe Nye, JFK School of Government, Harvard College
In the era of information overload, are we politically apathetic, depoliticized, and mediated. Are media and news coverage undergoing distortion, commercialisation, infotainisiation, entertainization.
Soft news, hard news and critical journalism are theoretical expositions about political value of news coverage.

Soft news -News, as in a newspaper or television report, that does not deal with formal or serious topics and events.
Hard news is “the 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” (T Patterson, 3). Hard news is the actual report of what has happened in a simple, clear, and accurate manner. This type of news story never distorts, misrepresents or gives wrong facts. It draws no conclusions, makes no accusations, offers no opinions and does not indulge in any speculations. Hard news is facts and statistics. Patterson defines hard news as being centered on a public policy component, which implies “coverage of breaking events involving top leaders, major issues, or significant disruptions in the routines of daily life.
Critical journalism tends to be a more negative version of soft news.  It is characterized by journalists who will stop at nothing to expose scandal, deceit, and mistakes in government. Patterson, Thomas E
Usually less political in content than critical journalism, soft news aims more to entertain.  Human interest stories and special news features make up soft news.  It is typically “more sensational, more personality-centered, less time-bound…and more incident-based than other news” (Patterson, 4).  Marvin Kalb, citing the difference between today’s news and that of earlier generations, calls the mixture of critical journalism and soft news the “new news”. Soft news is explanatory and opinionated one. It tells about background; draws conclusions, features, editorials and interpretive and investigative news are all soft news. If a fire breaks-out in the city, its news is hard news, but if you go into details about what caused the fire it is soft news.

The “new news” does have a place in the news media.  Without it, the news would be dry, boring and completely devoid of feeling.  However, over the past two decades, soft news and overly critical journalism have begun to dominate hard news.  “News stories that have no clear connection to policy issues have increased from less than 35 percent of all stories in 1980 to roughly 50 percent today.  Stories with a public policy component – hard news – have declined by a corresponding degree” (Patterson, 3).
There is no one place that is overrun with soft news and critical journalism.  “The trend is not confined to local or national news organizations, nor is it limited to the broadcast or print medium.  The trend may not be equally pronounced in all media, but it is evident in all”

Political significance of news

The press and politics are inextricably linked.  In its most traditional role, the press is supposed to be the public’s main source of information about the government.  The press influences how the public sees its government, and with the “new news,” the view is not a good one.  “Evidence…suggests that soft news and critical journalism are weakening the foundation of democracy by diminishing the public’s information about public affairs and its interest in politics…Critical journalism has weakened people’s interest in politics” (Patterson homas, 2).
Aside from causing apathy, the news can also cause the public to lose faith in its government.  Critical journalism in particular makes the government appear “almost universally inept and self-serving” (Patterson, 10). 
Subsequently, “trust in government has dropped sharply in the past four decades” (Patterson, 10).  Additionally, “the proportion of Americans who think most government officials are honest has dropped substantially” (Patterson, 10).
Soft news provides little beneficial political information; critical journalism over performs its watchdog role to the extent that Americans overdose on stories of political stupidity, scandal, and corruption.
Over 30 years, a large body of research on what is often called ‘hard’ and ‘soft news’has accumulated in communication studies. However, there is no consensus about what hard and soft news exactly is, or how it should be defined or measured. Moreover, the concept has not been clearly differentiated from or systematically related to concepts addressing very similar phenomena – tabloidization and ‘infotainment’. Consequently, the results of various studies are hard to compare and different scientific discourses on related issues remain unconnected.
The terms ‘hard news’ and ‘soft news’ are not scientific by origin. Although we do not exactly know when, the two terms were obviously first used by US journalists them-selves to categorize different kinds of news. The terms then made their way step by step from journalistic into academic language. In the middle of the last century, Schramm(1949) was one of the first US scholars to reflect on the division between different types of news from the perspective of audiences. He distinguished between delayed-reward and immediate-reward news and his distinction very much resembles the division between hard and soft news. In addition, he discussed possible motives why people would choose those different kinds of news and what their effects could be (Schramm,1949: 260–1). About 30 years later, in her widely cited study Tuchman (1973) addressed the issue from a journalists’ perspective and investigated their understanding of ‘hard news’ and ‘soft news’. Although Tuchman already stressed back then that journalists used the terms ambiguously, scholars began to use them more and more often to distinguish different kinds of news. The dichotomy became especially prominent in studies investigating ‘the softening of news’, ‘tabloidization’, or ‘increasing infotainment’; that is, the changes to the content and style of news presentation (e.g. Connell, 1998;Donsbach and B├╝ttner, 2005; Esser, 1999; Sparks, 2000; Uribe and Gunter, 2004). Those studies have contributed a lot to the fact that the hard vs soft dichotomy is widely used and therefore can be regarded as a key concept of political communication research.
The media are often blamed for electorates’ low levels of political knowledge and involvement, due to the tendency to cover political news in an increasingly entertaining manner.
The entertainization of political information is ongoing, with more and more programs falling into the category of so-called soft news (Holbert, 2005). Increasingly news coverage is not directly related to politics or policy issues, with now higher proportions of news stories that feature human-interest elements, deal with dramatic incidents or crime, are sensational or about personal affairs (Patterson, 2000).
Also within political news, dramatic elements are increasingly used to make the news more attractive for non-traditional news audiences. Such entertainization of political information is also characterized by news focusing on human-interest issues. Proponents of such developments claim that thereby segments of society receive political information that otherwise would avoid such information altogether (Baum, 2003).
By contrast, as the number of soft news programs increases, criticism follows. Scholars argue that seeing more soft news, at the expense of watching serious news, might lead to lower levels knowledge of public issues or negative attitudes towards politics (Postman, 1986; Putnam, 2000; Robinson, 1976).

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