Soft News, the Rise of Critical Journalism, and How to Preserve Democracy
EDGE, Spring Quarter
June 6, 2003
“We live in an era with a plentitude of information but a paucity of understanding.”
– Joe Nye, JFK School of Government, Harvard College
The American news media hails itself as a free and objective press. For all intents and purposes, this is true. The government does not own any major news outlets, and the Constitution specifically protects journalists from being unfairly silenced. However, with the rise of the Internet, cable news, and the 24-hour news cycle, the press could have more to worry about than an oppressive government. The rise of outrageous, false, critical, and sensational journalism shows that the clamor for profit and ratings can pose as much if not more of a threat to the existence of quality hard news than government interference.
Soft news and critical journalism penetrate newspapers, news magazines, and network and local newscasts. Though once regarded as a quick fix to fallen ratings due to heavy competition, these two news vices could cause the breakdown of the once superior American press.
With competition for audiences among news outlets on the rise, soft news and critical journalism have begun to overpower the news. Though successful at first at attracting viewers, sensationalism and criticism have caused Americans to become disenchanted with the news and thus their main source of information about politics. In turn, Americans are ill-informed, and become apathetic if not hostile toward their government and their press. The news needs to incorporate a balance of soft news and hard news into every production to preserve not only their audience, but democracy as well.
Hard News, Soft News, and Critical Journalism
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” (Patterson, 3). Though not always the most pleasant news, hard news should not be confused with critical journalism.
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. Former PBS anchor Robert MacNeil s referring to critical journalism when he says that the trends “are toward the sensational, the hype, the hyperactive, the tabloid values to drive out the serious” (Patterson, 3). Matthew Carleton Ehrlich describes today’s news as “the journalism of outrageousness” (Patterson, 3).
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”.
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).
The Rise of the “New News”
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” (Patterson, 5).
In the print media, for example, Thomas Patterson of Harvard University reports that even the vocabulary of news has changed. He and his team used the DICTION computer program to determine if the vocabulary of reporting two decades ago included more hard news words than today’s news. DICTION analyzed printed news for two categories of words. COLLECTIVES are words that reflect social groupings, task groups, and geographical entities, and are usually associated with hard news. SELF-REFERENCES are all first-person references, and are usually associated with soft news.
DICTION found that “during the past two decades, reporters’ use of COLLECTIVE words, which are part of the vocabulary of hard news, has declined substantially. In contrast, their use of words in the SELF-REFERENCE category, which help form the vocabulary of soft news, has increased substantially” (Patterson, 5). Thus, print media has become softer in recent years.
TV news succumbs to the soft news and critical journalism trend as well, perhaps the most of any media. An example of critical journalism is the coverage of crime in local TV news broadcasts. Although violent crime has declined in the past few years, it is sensationalized and hugely overrepresented in the daily news. “Crime stories dominate local TV newscasts, providing the largest share of lead stories and filling the largest proportion of air time” (Kerbel). Of these crime stories on TV news, about 20% are stories of murder. In the real world, only about .1% are murder.
If not focused on violent crime, many news programs devote large shares of their time slot to soft news. “NBC revamped its nightly newscast in 1997 by adding features and trimming its hard news, particularly stories from abroad” (Patterson, 5). After that change, Americans were more entertained by the NBC Nightly News, but at a loss for International news. This new format may have helped NBC to become the ratings leader at one point, but soft news strategies have not always succeeded, and appear to be faltering now.
Why Go Soft?
Soft news and critical journalism defenders say that the news must incorporate these features to attract viewers. After all, without an audience to financially support it, the free press would not survive. These defenders would also claim that the news has become “more personal and familiar in its form of presentation and less distant and institutional” (Patterson, 3). When news audiences began to decline a decade ago, news makers felt the solution would be to incorporate more soft news into their programs (Patterson, 2). In the effort to appeal to audiences, stay competitive with other outlets of news, and make a profit, the news incorporated more human interest stories and more sensationalism.
The 24-hour news cycle, the Internet, and cable news fostered competition between news outlets that caused a general panic and subsequent reliance on sensationalism and negativity to keep audiences. “The growth of soft news is rooted in marketing and ratings studies that indicate entertainment-based news can attract and hold audiences” (Patterson, 5).
However, the market does not explain critical journalism completely. Although profit-seeking plays a large part in the continuation of soft news, the government scandals of the past few decades may hold some blame for a more critical press. “The rules of reporting changed with Vietnam and Watergate, when the deceptions perpetrated by the Johnson and Nixon administrations convinced reporters that they had let the nation down by taking political leaders at their word” (Patterson, 9). In addition, “other developments – including the growing celebrity status of the television journalist – also fueled a more critical form of reporting” (Patterson, 9).
Thus, the “new news” came about because news outlets determined that the American public desired it. However, contrary to what the news outlets think Americans want, evidence suggests that Americans are fed up with negative critical journalism and soft news.
Declining Interest in the News
Though successful at first, in recent studies the “new news” has not met with much popularity. As Thomas Patterson finds, “news consumption has fallen dramatically in the past decade.” In the past few years, “local TV news has lost a fourth of its audience” (Patterson, 5). This is due to the fact that many Americans tend to believe the news has declined in quality (Patterson, 6). “Soft news may be diminishing the over all level of interest in the news” (Patterson, 7). Citing a survey he performed in 2000, Patterson finds that “Americans are ambivalent at best about today’s news” (Patterson, 6).
Clearly, soft news is not as fool-proof and appealing as previously believed. In Neil Postman’s words, soft news is dangerous because we risk “amusing ourselves to death.” Patterson agrees that “sensationalism draws people’s attention in the first instance but endless sensationalism may ultimately dull it” (Patterson, 6).
Patterson argues that Americans watch news for its hard content, not soft. Respondents to his study demonstrated “a clear preference for hard news” (Patterson, 6). He also claims that those people who prefer hard news are the bigger consumers of news. Critical journalism is also declining in popularity. “Americans seem about as tired of negative political news as they are of negative political advertising” (Patterson, 12).
What Does this Mean for Politics?
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, 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 and critical news interrupt the delicate political information system that exists in the United States. We use the political information system to collectively process information, synthesize it and then use it to make decisions (McCurry, 2). “News that highlights incidents and developments that have little to do with public affairs and that are selected for their capacity to shock or entertain can distort people’s perceptions of reality” (Patterson, 3). “The whole manipulation of the story line and the warping of factual information is part of the dysfunctionality that gives us less than what we need in order to make rational decisions” (McCurry, 3). Mike McCurry, former white house press secretary, while delivering a speech at Stanford, articulated that coverage of important political issues “has evolved to an end that is not consistent with what we need to be a good functioning democracy” (McCurry, 6).
An Apathetic Public, a Dangerous Situation
As McCurry puts it, to be a good functioning democracy, the public must have a clear grasp on the daily workings of its government. 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.
The best example of this problematic coverage is the Monica Lewinski scandal. In keeping with the norms of critical journalism, the press predicted that President Clinton would have to resign and covered the scandal accordingly. However, because of the overwhelmingly negative coverage, the public reacted differently than expected.
“The news coverage was so sensational, so lurid, and so rooted in hearsay that a majority of Americans believed it was unfair to Clinton and embraced his presidency, though not his behavior. If ever there was a wake-up call for the watchdog press, the Lewinski scandal was it. Having barked too much, the press had no bite” (Patterson, 14).
The press provides protection for the public from corrupt government officials, but it also must not neglect its responsibility to inform citizens so that they will make political decisions with sufficient understanding of the issues. Without such information, a culture of ignorance will pervade the United States, and it will cease to function as a working democracy.
Thus, the press obviously influences what happens in politics. However, the connection between press and politics is slightly more involved that it appears at first glance. James Carey, of Columbia school of Journalism writes, “journalism and democracy share a common fate.” He means that soft news and critical journalism will cause apathy toward politics, which will in turn cause apathy toward the news. Ultimately, Americans will become disenchanted with their best source of political information. Voting and participation in government – if done at all – will be performed blindly.
A Healthy, Balanced Diet
It is therefore in the news media’s best interest to reverse these trends. Since Americans are fed up with news, it should change. Many news followers have cut back their viewing time because they found that there was too much crime, too many fluff stories, too much negativity, and not enough positive content in the news to keep them coming back. Patterson is correct in his assertion that “in any other business, this type of response by the core consumer group would be cause for alarm” (Patterson, 8). The news does not have to go out this way. “Journalists can temper critical journalism in ways that will heighten interest in politics and in news, and that will strengthen the press’s watchdog role” (Patterson, 2).
However, temperance of critical journalism does not mean making every story have a happy ending. Since fans of hard news are the heavier consumers of news in general, then putting on more hard news should be beneficial to them. “The history of the news business suggests that quality prevails over pizzazz in the long run” (Patterson, 6). Hard news strategies are a “viable response to a hyper-competitive media environment” (Patterson, 2).
Even Mike McCurry feels that the news needs to “get back to the basics where journalism means presenting the information that’s important for people to know even if it’s not necessarily what they might find exciting” (McCurry, 7). He feels that Americans will not tune out once confronted with actual news, and eventually, the news makers will figure that out. “I think that we are moving in a direction that people begin to recognize that substance is attractive and marketable and that you can be profitable providing deeper and richer content and understanding to the citizens who are looking for it” (McCurry, 7).
Not all news outlets have succumbed completely to the soft trend. More news outlets should follow the example of the National Public Radio. “The NPR is the only national broadcast outlet that has increased its audience since the 1980s” (Patterson, 8). This is due to the fact that “although NPR relies on features as well as hard news, its features tend to be interpretive of the day’s hard news events” (Patterson, 8).
McCurry acknowledges that the news is in trouble, but presents no immediate solution. Nonetheless, he reveals optimism for its future:
I know you’ve read Marvin Kalb’s theory that a lot of this is economics-based, it’s because of the way in which news organizations have to make money and thus how they present the news is related to how they think they can grow and keep their audience. I think there is an element of that but I think it’s also largely because we haven’t figured out how to present in an engaging way the information citizens need so that they can get a better handle on what’s going on in the world” (McCurry, 5).
Perhaps the news simply needs time to “figure out” how to present hard news in the best way, but the answer is simple. As Patterson reveals, “in the long run, the best way to build an audience for news is through balanced public-affairs reporting” (Patterson, 9). In order to preserve the free press and ultimately the American system of democracy, leave the entertainment to entertainment programming, and the news to the news.
1. “News Lite.” James McCartney. American Journalism Review. June 1997, pp. 19-21.
2. Kalb, Marvin. The Rise of the “New News”: A Case Study of Two Root Causes of the Modern Scandal Coverage. Discussion Paper D-34, October 1998. The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy: Harvard University, 1998.
3. McCurry, Mike. The Modern Pied Piper? Reflections on the Job of Press Secretary. The Press and Political Process (Communication 160). Lecture Transcript. Stanford University: 2001.
4. 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.
5. Iyengar, Shanto. Is Anyone Responsible? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
6. Iyengar, Shanto and Reeves, Richard. Do the Media Govern? Politicians, Voters, and Reporters in America. SAGE Publications. Thousand Oaks, CA. 1997.
7. Ehrlich, Matthew Carleton. “The Journalism of Outrageousness.” Journalism and Mass Communication Monographs No. 155 (February, 1996).
8. Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. 107.
9. Kerbel, Matthew R. If it Bleeds, It Leads. Boulder, CO. Westview Press, 2000.
10. Carey, James. “Lawyers, Voyeurs, and Vigilantes.” Media studies journal. Spring/Summer 1999.