By: Brookelyn Riley
Lance Armstrong chose Oprah as his initial interview since being stripped of his Tour de France titles due to a doping scandal. This week, it was announced that Manti Te’o chose Katie Couric on Good Morning Americaas his first interview since the public’s discovery of his controversial “fake” girlfriend. While Armstrong and Te’o are athletic celebrities rather than political figures, it calls into question how public figures of all facets choose to address the public and who/what program they choose as an outlet. We as the public are seeing an increasing frequency in political leaders, most notably presidential candidates, on daytime and late night talk shows seen as soft news sources. According to a definition by Tom Patterson (Prior 2003), soft news is “typically more sensational, more personality-centered, less time-bound, more practical, and more incident-based than other news.” Hard news, the opposite, is coined as coverage of breaking events involving top leaders, major issues, or significant events in the routine of daily life, according to Baum. So why would a sitting president add a late night comedy-based talk show to his inundated itinerary of appearances on more traditional news shows? Clearly, politicians (and celebrities alike) find it beneficial in making appearances on these types of soft news sources, in addition to their typical interviews in hard news.
An obvious reason is for the magnitude and reach. For instance, in 2009 President Obama reached 7.2 million Americans on Letterman, while only reaching 3.1 million the day before on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. However, the more important yet less obvious reason can be attributed to the nature of the audience of shows such as Letterman, The View, the Oprah Winfrey Show, etcetera. These interviews cast present candidates and politicians in a more favorable light than traditional political interviews. Hosts are known to give them gentler treatment and easier questioning. (Baum 2010)
The increasing frequency of politicians on these soft news outlets shows that they must think there is a politically intrinsic value in appearing on them. Does this idea of an Oprah Effect, the influence of consuming soft news political content, truly help citizens in fulfilling their democratic responsibilities? Social scientists investigating this question have formulated 4potential areas for why the answer to this question could be yes.
According to Baum, the basic attentiveness to political information is the lowest threshold of learning. Since attentiveness is a precursor to comprehension, attention is important in political learning. Baum found that soft news has little to no influence on already highly politically engaged individuals, but it may have an effect on those who are politically inattentive. This is an incidental by-product, meaning that soft news makes political information accessible to a less politically-inclined public in a more interesting and entertaining way.
It has been determined by communication scholars that television allows viewers to learn passively even If they are not interested or motivated to learning about the topic. Viewers are more likely to passively learn by watching soft news outlets because the information is presented in a non-conflictual manner. Therefore, TV watchers often gain knowledge through their TV consumption without even realizing they are doing so. In looking at information about 2004 presidential candidate information, researchers found that “politically disinterested viewers who read the Letterman version of the transcript—that is, a transcript embedded in a webpage designed to appear like the show’s website—reported increased political engagement and demonstrated increased knowledge about Kerry’s policy positions.” The exact same information presented in a traditional news context had virtually no effect on younger viewers. These findings suggest that some consumers do learn politics through soft news but what exactly they learn and how well it is retained is undetermined.
Research suggests that exposure to soft news does influence the attitudes of viewers toward political candidates. They argue that soft news material increases viewers’ attention to world affairs and encourages critical thinking, rather than giving them a cynical, closed view. Soft news can partially level the playing field and give political figures a human quality. Baum found that politically inattentive individuals who frequently watched daytime talk shows during the campaign were likely to find the candidates that appeared on those shows more likeable than their non-viewing counterparts. Ultimately soft news may not cause viewers to shift their opinion from one candidate to another, but the Oprah Effect most likely enhances the audience’s perception of the politicians.
Since soft news influences viewers’ political attention, knowledge, and attitudes, that only links us to part of the political outcomes. This last step of the Oprah Effect concerns mass political behavior and how soft news may influence the political behavior of some. By political behavior, it is meant the most basic act of democratic society – voting. Some researchers say that soft news “alienates viewers from the political process and thus depresses political participation.” Media fragmentation and the wide variety of choices allows politically uninterested viewers the opportunity to avoid political information altogether, making it pure entertainment. These individuals are less likely to vote over time. The implication is that more access to entertainment media and soft news depresses the political participation of otherwise inattentive individuals, all the while still improving the reasoning process and accuracy of the candidates, despite their lack of turnout. (Baum 2010)
During the 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 primary and general elections, virtually all candidates appeared on daytime and late night entertainment talk shows. Therefore, many Americans who may have otherwise ignored the political to-and-fro altogether may have encountered at least some information about those running. Ultimately, politicians and even sitting presidents may choose to go on these soft news shows to emphasize their personal images rather than policies, or to discuss their policies in a less traditional, formulaic light. In today’s society with virtually unlimited resources to research candidates but seemingly never enough time to actually do so, soft news can be a serious, and seriously growing, means of politicians to communicate to the public, altering the traditional political landscape.
Baum , Matthew, and Angela Jamison. Soft News and the Four Oprah Effects. ch. 8.
Prior, Markus. Any Good News in Soft News? The Impact of Soft News Preference on Political Knowledge. Taylor & Francis Group, 2003. Web. 1 Jan.