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In continuing to explore the current state of discussion on soft news, this week I looked at a article written in 2003 called “Any Good News in Soft News? The Impact of Soft News Preference on Political Knowledge” by Markus Prior. In this article, Prior expands upon previous assertions made by Mathew Baum in his article “Making politics fun: What happens when presidential candidates hit the talk show circuit?” which Baum presented in 2002 at the 98th Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association.

In his article Baum makes a couple assertions, the most important of which being the claim that “soft news formats contribute to democratic discourse, because they attract viewers who would otherwise not be exposed to news at all”.

Prior’s article accompanied a study he performed by surveying 2,358 randomly selected U.S. residents. In his study, Prior sought two things: to develop a quantifiable way in which to examine the claim that people’s appreciation of entertainment was a factor in determining their attention to politics and to see if people were simply watching soft news or actively learning from it, and thus becoming more politically literate. The study yielded a couple interesting results:

– The audience for soft news, far from rising to ever greater majorities of news users, is relatively small and has grown slowly, if at all, in the past couple of years (as of 2003)

– Traditional hard news formats remain far more popular than soft news

– The percentage of Americans who say that they follow network news regularly is about 3 to 4 times higher than the percentage of regular viewers of any particular talk show or entertainment news program.

– People with a preference for soft news rank lowest in both watching TV news programs and reading daily newspapers

– Local news is much more popular than soft news

People who prefer soft news formats are significantly less knowledgeable than those who prefer hard news, even in the political domains most easily presented as entertainment.

Although this study and article offer some valuable perspective into the slow start of soft news, the study was conducted in 2002 and is, for the speed at which the media landscape is changing, a bit dated. From my own experience, I also found such statistics a little hard to believe considering the prevalence of soft news consumption among my peers. The reason for this came to light upon closer inspection of what the term “soft news” meant up until this point and the kind of programs it included in its definition.

Prior uses programs such as Entertainment Tonight and Oprah Winfrey as examples of what he considers soft news, building off a definition established in 2000 by Tom Patterson in his article “Doing well and doing good: How soft news and critical journalism are shrinking the new audience and weakening democracy—And what news outlets can do about it”.

This article characterizes soft news as “typically more sensational, more personality-centered, less time-bound, more practical, and more incident-based than other news.”

What soft news constitutes up until this point, however, seems to be more celebrity and social news than the fake news and news satire that the term “soft news” has come to encompass since 2003. During my research, soft news has often been used synonymously with fake news but obviously that was not always the case. Looking at programs that might be considered soft news that emerged in popularity after 2003 – namely The Daily Show with Jon Steward and The Colbert Report – Patterson’s definition could still be applicable. The results from Prior’s survey, however, are not.

In fact, the opposite trend seems to be emerging. Fake news is on a rise in popularity. In October of 2003, USA Today wrote of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, “Ratings are at their peak, averaging nearly a million viewers this year, up 18% over 2002 and nearly threefold since Stewart replaced Kilborn in January 1999”. And in September 2008 the New York Post reported, “The Daily Show scored its most-watched week ever last week, averaging nearly 2 million viewers a night on Comedy Central.”

Prior’s other main point seems to be disproven as well:

According to a poll conducted by University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey in 2004, “viewers of late-night comedy programs, especially The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, are more likely to know the issue positions and backgrounds of presidential candidates than people who do not watch late-night comedy”.

This is a huge distinction from Prior’s results of only two years earlier.

Senior Analyst Dannagal Goldthwaite Young even states, “Daily Show viewers have higher campaign knowledge than national news viewers and newspaper readers – even when education, party identification, following politics, watching cable news, receiving campaign information online, age, and gender are taken into consideration.”

Obviously there is a clear distinction between celebrity news and fake news that, up until the mid-2000s, had not really been teased out. I thought this was an important revelation in my research since I had been using the term interchangeably without any idea as to how the term may have changed to encompass new programs since its original conception.

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