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A new study released today documents how dramatic changes in news coverage – especially the rise in "soft news" and "critical journalism" – "may now be hastening the decline in news audiences" and "weakening the foundation of democracy by diminishing the public’s information about public affairs and its interest in politics."
"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," said Thomas E. Patterson, the author of the study’s report, Doing Well and Doing Good. "And 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."
The two-year study was done by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. It included an analysis of changes in news coverage during the 1980s and 1990s and surveys of Americans’ news habits and opinions.
Among the key findings are:
Soft news (that is, news that is typically more sensational, more personality-centered, more entertainment oriented, and more incident-based than traditional public affairs news) has increased sharply in the past two decades. News stories that have no public policy component have increased from less than 35% of all stories in 1980 to roughly 50% today. In the early 1980s, about 25% of news stories had a moderate to high level of sensationalism; today, nearly 40% of news stories have this feature.
Critical news (that is, news about the failings of leaders, institutions, and policies) has risen steadily in recent decades. Negative coverage of presidential candidates is an example. In 1960, about 25% of the evaluative coverage of candidates was negative in tone. In the past three presidential elections, more than 50% of the coverage has been negative.
By a 5-3 ratio, Americans are more likely to believe that the news has gotten worse rather than better in recent years. Americans also say that today’s news is sensational rather than serious (58% to 42%), depressing rather than uplifting (84% to 16%), and negative rather than positive (77% to 23%).
The report shows how 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 more people (63% to 24%) are attracted to news because of its public affairs content than because of its stories about crime, celebrities, and the like. Moreover, the people who prefer public affairs coverage are 50% more likely to have a strong interest in news. Yet the study found that these individuals are also the ones who are most dissatisfied with news trends and most likely to say they have been cutting back on their news consumption.
"The market research that tells news operations crime and entertainment-based news sells, may be right in the short term," said Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard. But over the long run, he said, 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," Patterson said, [public-affairs coverage] has been the primary reason that millions of people each day choose to spend some of their time on the news."
The study also found that critical journalism is weakening the demand for news by depressing the public’s interest in politics. Interest levels have dropped significantly in recent years. Critical journalism, the report concludes, "is not the only factor, nor necessarily the major one" in the public’s declining interest in politics. But "negative news is eroding Americans’ political trust and interest. . . . As politics becomes less attractive to citizens, so, too, does the news. Individuals who have a strong interest in politics are three and one-half times more likely (83% to 24%) to follow the news closely than those with a weak interest. As interest falls step-by-step, so too does news consumption."
"Very little sustained attention to news," Patterson writes, "exists outside of a sustained interest in politics." The report concludes: "Critical journalism needs to give way to a more credible form of journalism. It would be a type of journalism that does not ignore official wrongdoing and does not turn the media agenda over to the newsmakers. It would also be one, however, that gives proper voice to the newsmakers, pays sufficient attention to what government is doing well, and assesses politicians’ failings by reasonable standards. News with these characteristics would help to restore trust and renew interest in both politics and in the news."
Founded in 1986, the Shorenstein Center is a research organization that focuses on the effect the media has on politics and government. The Soft New Project was sponsored by a grant from the Smith-Richardson Foundation.
NOTE: Copies of the report – entitled 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 – are available upon request. More information about the project is available at www.shorensteincenter.org.