Matthew A. Baum

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Soft News and Political Knowledge: Evidence of Absence or Absence of Evidence?

In “Any Good News in Soft News?” Markus Prior investigates whether or not, beyond enhancing their attentiveness to select political issues, consumers also learn about politics from soft news. He presents evidence suggesting that the audience for soft news is much smaller than that for hard news, and that a self-expressed preference for soft news outlets is associated with at most sporadic gains in factual political knowledge. He concludes that the public appears to learn about politics from the soft news media at most only sporadically. In this commentary, I argue, contrary to Prior, that the audience for soft news outlets is, in fact, quite large, perhaps rivaling that for hard news. I further argue that long-term retention of factual political knowledge – the focus of Prior’s web-based survey -- is a highly restrictive definition of learning. By broadening our definition, taking into account recent insights from cognitive and social psychology concerning human information processing, it becomes possible to understand how consuming soft news might indeed be associated with learning about politics, but not necessarily with an enhanced long-term store of factual political knowledge. I present evidence that consuming soft news influences the attitudes of politically inattentive individuals and that, in at least some fairly predictable contexts, consuming soft news is also associated with enhanced factual political knowledge. I conclude that while Prior’s finding of an absence of evidence of consistent factual political knowledge effects represents a valuable contribution to our understanding of the political significance of the soft news media, it does not constitute compelling evidence of absence of any meaningful learning about politics associated with consuming soft news. Hence, as Prior acknowledges in his conclusion, it is premature to conclude that there is no good news in soft news.

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