The meaning of the phrase “hard news” and its tendentious complement “soft news” has changed dramatically over the past few decades. News is treacherously hard to define in an age when issues like L’affaire Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are regularly covered in hard news programs and turkey contests are adjudicated within a news program right after news about homicides (Fox News, 10/26/06, Morning News Programming).
Soft news items have increasingly proliferated hard news programming in the past few decades. Aside from content, news programming has also been transformed stylistically since the advent of cable and now features production ploys (and values) that are reminiscent of entertainment – for example, use of sound and graphics in major news programs.
It is disconcerting that shows like Bill O Reilly’s eponymous O’ Reilly Factor, which use confrontation and group identity rituals to entertain their audiences and feature topics like the war of Christmas, have become the staple of hard news. It is also important to note that soft news is not limited to television but pervades other forms of media. Pew researchers found in 2004 that 17% of the public regularly listens to talk radio. While the true numbers for definable soft news items may be contested, the content and style of hard news has inarguably shifted towards soft news.
Let’s train our attention towards understanding the reasons behind the rise of soft news, which has been generally understood to be the result of twin economic pressures to lower production costs for news and increase audience (for basically the same information). The latter half of the argument is predicated on the assumption, which appears to be true, that the majority of audience members in the United States like to be entertained by news.
The popularity of entertainment news, a sub section of soft news, can also be understood as a function of economy. In particular, information about celebrities has become increasingly important for social intercourse with friends, family, and colleagues at work.
Given the salience of entertainment news in social intercourse, it is but natural that people will pay more attention to entertainment information. It always surprises me how well informed people are about entertainment news. In a related point, one can also look at the rise in entertainment news as a reflection of the fundamental shift in economy – from an economy where significant value addition happened in production and now happens during marketing.
Celebrities are often the pioneers of new fashion trends and early adopters of lifestyle gadgets. The focus on celebrities can be seen as a ploy to sell more things. Other researchers have argued that the popularity of soft news stems from the dry, pompous, elitist model of hard news that resorted to intellectualizing rather than presenting stories with human interest.
It is important to understand if/how the proliferation of soft news affects its consumers. As I argued above, rise in consumption of soft news may lead to a rise in consumerism. Consumption of soft news can also have significant political effects. To understand those effects fully, we must carefully analyze how soft news differs from hard news.
One significant way in which the two differ is that “soft news coverage of political issues is far less diverse than that of hard news,” according to Matthew Baum, professor of political science at UCLA. Soft news coverage is generally dominated by topics like crime, particularly violent crime, with frequency that overstates the true frequency and salience. The preponderance of crime stories leads to two related misconceptions – firstly that the problem is larger than it actually is and secondly that the problem is more important than it actually is.
Another major way in which soft news differs from hard news is that “the soft news media almost never employ thematic (context along with news) frames,” according to Dr. Baum. Soft news instead relies on episodic (event based) framing. Shanto Iyengar, a professor of communication at Stanford University, argues that episodic framing doesn’t let people trace the arc of responsibility behind the episodes and hence doesn’t give people information about where/whom to attribute accountability.
This is a severe limitation for soft news because it hampers the key use of information accrual by a citizen in a democracy – to demand accountability. Combining the above two points, one may argue that not only are soft news consumers thinking (or shall I say feeling) about issues in the wrong way, they are also focusing their attention on the wrong issues.
Researchers have argued that using stored heuristic cues, people can form opinions that reflect their ‘true opinion’ or opinions formed with full information. Assuming this form of reasoning is the dominant form of reasoning, it is important to make sure that rich heuristic cues are created and based on sound information, which can then be used later to form internally consistent opinions.
It seems natural that hard news programming, which provides more facts, will help produce richer, more differentiated, heuristic cues. Heuristic cues triggered by hard news have been shown to have a shorter shelf life than ones produced by soft news. By enhancing the shelf life of heuristic cues, soft news is at one level increasing the shelf life of information, but it is doing so by compromising the richness (context, variegated meaning) of information. In short, heuristic cues produced by soft news leave people feeling they know more than they actually do.
On the flip side, one can argue that soft news can in fact be used to inculcate better citizenry. For example, researchers have shown that people who saw progressive drama where women were forced to confront the issue of abortion affected their ability of how they reasoned about the issue and even their stances on public policy.
Soft news has the ability of narrating stories of a variety of groups that we will perhaps never meet in real life and hence it does the important function of sensitizing people to other cultures, sub groups and ideas. Admittedly it doesn’t do it well, but when it does, it is likely that it makes people more empathetic.
In all, news needs to do two things to be efficacious: provide information and make that information relevant to people.