For a representative republic, like the United States, to function as intended, citizens need to be able to vote for politicians who represent their own, subjectively determined, interests. Today, most rely on the news media to inform them, but, critics say that the news is based increasingly on what will interest an audience rather than on what the audience needs to know.
Although many agree the news media has a role to play in educating the electorate, it is also important to remember that they ultimately are firms competing in the marketplace for viewers/readers. In addition to choosing what news media to consume, people are now given many more options of non-information media to choose from, which creates an atmosphere where those who prefer nonpolitical or uninformative content can more easily escape the news, and therefore pick up less political or otherwise relevant information than before. With this, we may see political knowledge becoming stratified, based on one’s motivation to be a part of the informed electorate.
One of the largest trends across all forms of information news media is the permeation of “soft” news. There is no true definition for hard and soft news, but informally one could think of the difference between news stories that are written with the intent to inform, and those written with the intent to entertain. This abstraction is not perfect in explaining the difference; soft news can sometimes be the manner in which a story is reported, rather than simply content differences that make it less informative. In the 1985 book Perspectives on Radio and Television, Leslie Smith suggested that soft news is just the absence of hard news, referring to news covering breaking events involving top leaders, major issues, or significant disruptions in the routines of daily life, such as an earthquake or airline disaster. Information about these events is presumably important to citizens’ ability to understand and respond to the world of public life and affairs, meaning news that is not of this type is by definition, “soft.”
In a paper published in 2000 titled “Doing Well and Doing Good”, Thomas Patterson used the previously mentioned definition of hard news in an attempt to quantify the proliferation of soft news. His findings indicate that 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 at the time the article was written. He coded to establish a standardized measurement for sensationalism in news stories, and found that in the early 1980s, across all outlets, approximately 25 percent of news stories had a moderate to high level of sensationalism compared with nearly 40 percent in 2000. Stories that include a human-interest element also figure more prominently in the news, accounting for less than 11 percent of stories in the early 1980s; compared to 26% in 2000. Dramatic incidents, like crimes and disasters—are now also making up a larger proportion of the reported news. This is dangerous because news that highlights incidents or trends that have little to do with public affairs and that are selected for their capacity to grab a consumer’s attention or entertain can distort people’s perceptions of reality. In the 1990’s, for example, when crime news skyrocketed and people came to believe the crime rate was rising even though it was actually falling.
The growth of competition in the information distribution industry has important implications; audiences will continue to fragment as new competitors, including those on the Internet, contend for market share, mainly because when information sources are abundant, people tend to gravitate toward those that offer a differentiated product. This differentiation is multifaceted; firms have a choice to produce content that we can generalize as news or entertainment, like MTV or CNN. If the firm decides to present information news, they then can choose how they would like to present the information, whether that be with a liberal or conservative slant, or how much analysis they present along with the facts. In other words, the same mechanism that leads to separation between information and entertainment media also can lead to political polarization within news. Fox News is the most commonly cited example of differentiation and polarization’s connection. Rupert Murdoch, a successful media entrepreneur, founded Fox News in 1996, and appointed Roger Ailes as CEO. Fox saw a market inefficiency that they attempted to exploit; in a media landscape that was generally considered liberal leaning, conservatives felt their news broadcasts were biased, and by providing a counterbalance to that leftward lean, they instantly became the most attractive option for those with a similar world view. The implication behind this, which is substantiated with research, is that the ability to customize political information will have a polarizing effect on society as media users will be less likely to encounter information that challenges their partisan viewpoints.
With an abundance of content options, firms are faced with the challenge of filling airtime in ways that are interesting to consumers, which significantly increases their costs. Traditional investigative journalism requires an amount of time that most journalists are not normally allowed to devote to stories. The pressures of the 24-hour news cycle make it nearly impossible for journalists to engage in high-quality investigative reporting, meaning they have to create crutches to lean on to fill time, including the growing reliance of critical-journalism. To a producer at a 24 hour news network, content supplied through journalists’ use of sources is much cheaper than an in-depth investigation. When a politician or businessperson makes a statement or takes action, reporters turn to adversaries to attack it. The critical element is supplied, not by a careful assessment of the situation, but by the insertion of a counter-claim. Instead of straight news, [journalists] prefer to support controversy and argument (Patterson, 2000). Another manifestation of firms competing is the blurring of the lines between hard news, soft news, and entertainment. Satirical shows like the Daily Show and The Colbert Report became trendy in the first decade of the 21st century, but networks have been trying simplify hard news topics by presenting them in the format of entertainment or soft news for as long as they’ve existed, potentially to the detriment of the consumer.
Newspapers have historical roots dating much further back in time than other mediums, and as such have some unique ingrained attributes that are not present in other media forms. The near-universal format for newspapers is to clearly separate the information news from the opinion based editorials and policy advocation sections. This transparent differentiation between objective and subjective is not present in common publications presented in other mediums, like the internet, where stories can be read individually and shared to others without the larger context of the publication. The tangible nature of newspapers, relative to the other mediums of information distribution studied, means that they hold unique characteristics not shared with other mediums, namely geographic limitations. In the case of daily newspapers, firms have to generate content, physically print the newspapers, and deliver them to homes and businesses, which limits the scope of the distribution area. In addition to this, producing information content in this manner requires massive upfront costs to build the infrastructure to continuously complete this cycle. The growth of the internet as news distribution has displaced traditional newspapers, which continue to see drops in circulation rates. The low-cost nature of the internet allows almost anyone to contribute information and analysis, including those who may not have the same standards as traditional journalists. This trend is something to be aware of, with the permeation of “fake news” on people’s social media feeds.
To quantify how the differences in news mediums may impact the content they present, I analyzed an aggregation of over 100,000 news stories from the “Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index” for the years 2008 – 2012, with particular focus on hard news vs. soft news. Each year’s index categorizes a representative sample of stories from a variety of sources across newspapers, online news, television, and radio, for a number of different aspects of the story. The time dimension is vital because we would expect political and campaign coverage to differ between election and nonelection years.
With the understanding that content has different costs to produce based on how much research and effort are expended on the topic, we can assume that news mediums that have more time to fill will have a higher proportion of stories that cover soft news topics. Additionally, news stories based on politics can also fit the low cost model; television and radio stations often rely on guests, who are typically biased in some manner, to provide critical analysis of the news of the day. Divisive political issues, like immigration and minority rights, were also recoded into a separate category to quantify reliance on story topics that are polarizing. Fear based news covers crime and domestic terrorism, which news outlets may use to attract viewers.