Soft News Erodes Audience

Weakening the foundation of democracy

Saturday, Jan. 13, 2001

The rise in "soft news" and "critical journalism" could be turning off traditional news audiences, according to a Harvard University study released Friday. Such dramatic changes in news coverage might also be "weakening the foundation of democracy by diminishing the public's information about public affairs and its interest in politics," the study said.

"Over the long run, soft news is shrinking the numbers of viewers and readers, especially because those who prefer hard news are much heavier consumers of news," according to professor Thomas E. Patterson, the author of the two-year study, conducted by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Patterson said negative coverage of politics and government "is having an impact on Americans' attachment to politics, which further erodes their interest in learning about it through the news."

Soft news was defined as being typically more sensational, more personality-centered, more entertainment-oriented and more incident-based than traditional public affairs news.

Such soft news has increased sharply in the past two decades. News stories that have no public policy component have increased from less than 35 percent of all stories in 1980 to about 50 percent now.

Nearly 40 percent of news stories now have a moderate to high level of sensationalism, compared to 25 percent in the early 1980s.

News criticizing leaders, institutions and policies has risen steadily in recent decades, as illustrated by negative coverage of presidential candidates. The study found that about 25 percent of the critical coverage of candidates in 1960 was negative, while that increased to more than 50 percent during the past three presidential elections.

Patterson said the study found that by a 5-3 ratio, Americans are more likely to believe that the news has gotten worse rather than better, is more sensational rather than serious, depressing rather than uplifting, and negative rather than positive.

The study found 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." It found that people are attracted to news because of its public affairs content rather than because of its stories about crime and entertainers.

People who prefer public affairs coverage are 50 percent more likely to have a strong interest in news, the study said. And those individuals are also the ones most dissatisfied with news trends and most likely to cut back.

Patterson said while the belief that crime and entertainment news sells might be right in the short run, the media are "undermining the overall demand for news by failing to account for the interests of those who traditionally have followed the news regularly."

For more than a century, coverage of public affairs has been the primary reason why millions of people read and watched the news daily.

Critical journalism and "negative news," the study said, "is weakening the demand for news by depressing the public's interest in politics."

"As politics becomes less attractive to citizens, so, too, does the news," the study said.

The report concluded that "very little sustained attention to news exists outside of a sustained interest in politics," Patterson said.

It also concluded that critical journalism, in order to renew interest in politics and in the news, needed to give way to a "more credible" form of journalism, one that "does not ignore official wrongdoing and does not turn the media agenda over to the newsmakers" but does give them "a proper voice."

It would also pay "sufficient attention" to government and assess politicians by "reasonable standards."

Copyright 2000 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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13 jan 2001