The term infotainment refers to a cluster of program types that blur traditional distinctions between information-oriented and entertainment-based genres of television programming. Primarily a pejorative term, infotainment is often used to denote the decline of hard news and public affairs discussion programs and the corresponding development of a variety of entertainment shows that mimic the style of news. At the same time, however, the early years of the twenty-first century have seen the increasing emergence of programs that more thoroughly blend the content and form of various genres of public affairs and entertainment. This has created a complex spectrum of hybrid programming with a potentially wide range of implications for public information, political communication, and democratic discourse.
Much scholarly concern with the phenomenon of infotainment has focused on the encroachment of entertainment on the domain of news. In his seminal work, Postman (1985) feared that we were “amusing ourselves to death” by forsaking print-based, rationalcritical information in favor of entertaining televisual spectacle with its short attention span and dramatic storylines. Altheide (2004) has argued that news and politics must now conform to an entertainment-driven “media logic” and are disseminated to the public through an “infotainment news perspective” that packages events and issues into narrative form. Graber (1994) has identified several dramatic elements that have become common to routine news, including an emphasis on conflict, emotion, evocative visual imagery, and interpersonal interaction. The conflation of news with entertainment – what Graber called the “infotainment quotient” in television news – also is indicated by news producers’ frequent use of music, fast-paced editing, and a variety of visual and aural effects to build a sense of drama in the news story; a disproportionate interest in celebrity, sports, and lifestyle topics; and a celebration of individual newscasters as marketable personalities.
Recently, scholarly attention has turned to the other side of infotainment: the increasing penetration of news form and content into entertainment programming. A number of factually based entertainment shows now look like news, featuring “anchors” who read voice-over copy and introduce reporter packages, often with the ubiquitous graphic box over the shoulder. Further, a range of fictional programs construct storylines that refer to, draw from, or dramatize politics, current events, or issues of contemporary social importance. Delli Carpini and Williams (1994, 2001) argue that such programming challenges the familiar dichotomy that sees news and entertainment as oppositional terms, offering both entertainment and an alternative location for informational content and political discourse. They suggest infotainment is best understood as a phenomenon of border-crossing that problematizes common assumptions that news is necessarily serious and that entertainment shows contain little in the way of socio-political significance. Further, they and others argue that infotainment calls into question a number of other traditional distinctions, including those between politics and show business, public affairs and popular culture, and even factual and fictional media forms.
The emergence of infotainment has been enabled by a confluence of technological, economic, and cultural changes that have created a media landscape structured by the competing forces of fragmentation and integration. In terms of technology, the large-scale adoption of cable television, the development of satellite and digital delivery systems, and the continued expansion of the Internet have led to an unprecedented multiplicity of channels and informational sources. Further, advances in personal computer-based technologies of media production have significantly lowered barriers to entry, in terms of both the capital and expertise required to create and distribute informational content. This has resulted in a diverse communicative sphere marked by the segmentation of the audience, the circulation of a potentially infinite range of text, images, and video, and the fracturing of the hegemony of US network television and European public service broadcasting systems over the informational environment.
Economically, the turn toward source multiplicity and audience fragmentation has been countered by the consolidation of ownership into the hands of a small number of giant corporate conglomerates. Driven by the interest of increasing shareholder value, conglomeration has been accompanied by widespread commercialization – the reconceptualization of all media forms not as public service, but as for-profit products . Owning a wide variety of previously distinct media outlets, contemporary media companies further seek to maximize economic efficiencies through the sharing of resources, personnel, and approaches to content across what were once considered to be incompatible forms. The line between informational and entertainment programming, once a hallmark of media practice, has been obscured by the synergistic interweaving of content across multiple channels and genres.
All of this has occurred within a wider cultural context defined by multicultural diversity and a recognition of the relativism of many cultural traditions and standards. Contemporary media function in a cultural environment marked by disagreement over the modernist ideals of objective inquiry and dispassionate expertise that once authorized the serious national news broadcast. So too have many become wary of the paternalism of public service broadcasting and its assessment not just of what the public needs to know, but also of how they should know it. The conventions governing public discourse have become porous, with the logic of “hard” news no longer assumed to be the privileged way of talking about and making sense of social and political reality. Instead, television programming and public discourse have become shaped by hybridization: the thorough melding of once-differentiated discourses of news, politics, show business, and marketing in a media landscape defined by the permeability of form and the fluidity of content.
It is difficult to consider infotainment a singular, clearly definable genre. Brants (1998) instead suggests an “infotainment scale” that takes into account the topical focus of a given program as well as its format and style. On one end of the continuum are those programs that contain factual content about policy matters packaged within a serious format that makes minimal use of televisual style. On the opposite end are shows that emphasize dramatic, personalized content within an informal and heavily stylistic format. Those two poles, however, are idealized types, with various infotainment programs occupying a wide range of positions in between. In US media, these include, among others, the “news lite” offered by network television and 24-hour cable; talk radio; local, tabloid, and other forms of “soft” news; contemporary documentary such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11; daytime talk shows; late-night comedy news such as The Daily Show; and issue-oriented prime-time dramas such as The West Wing. Any typology – including this one – inevitably is incomplete, however. The integration of news and entertainment varies across national media systems and continually shifts with each new programmatic innovation. Even similar program types (e.g., late-night comedy) can articulate the conjunction of information and entertainment in markedly different ways.
The difficulties in precisely defining infotainment likewise render it a challenging object of study. Scholarly approaches to infotainment can be grouped broadly into two camps, which vary in methodology but share the goal of identifying the significance of the phenomenon for public information, political communication, and the democratic process. Scholars working within the domain of media effects are interested in the outcomes of exposure to various types of infotainment content. Specifically, empirical studies have examined the effects of infotainment consumption on factual political knowledge, candidate evaluation, issue salience, and political engagement, the last including voting, volunteering in campaigns, and discussing politics with family and friends. Findings have been relatively consistent: that infotainment does have the potential to reach people who otherwise would pay little or no attention to news and political information, that exposure can result in increased factual knowledge among the otherwise politically disengaged (e.g., Baum 2003), and that consumption can correlate with increased levels of political engagement among certain types of audiences (Moy et al. 2005). However, studies equally show that any direct effects are moderated by prior levels of political sophistication, partisanship, and individual-level differences. Further, the wide diversity of infotainment programming resists efforts to generalize effects across specific programs.
The second scholarly approach turns from a focus on individual effects to a concern for political culture: to popular understandings of the democratic system, political authority, and the nature of citizenship as constructed through various discourses of infotainment. A number of scholars have argued that infotainment is incompatible with the needs of a democracy, degrading the quality of public information, dissuading from critical inquiry, and transforming rational argument into emotive spectacle. The result, some argue, is a “crisis of public communication” (Blumler & Gurevitch 1995) – a citizenry that lacks both the discursive resources to functionally participate in the political process and any interest in doing so.
An expanding body of scholarship, however, is developing the counterargument: that infotainment is not just good for democracy, but perhaps necessary. Various forms of this argument suggest that infotainment is democratizing political discourse by legitimizing narrative and affective forms of reasoning, acknowledging the irreversible interconnection between politics and popular culture, and drawing linkages between politics and the audience’s everyday lives (Corner & Pels 2003). Here infotainment is seen as a counterweight to traditional expert-and insider-dominated forms of political talk that have little apparent relevance to the life-world of the audience (Jones 2005; van Zoonen 2005). Others suggest that particular forms of infotainment are offering a corrective to a news discourse that has become co-opted by political communication professionals and seeded with scripted sound bites and spin (Baym 2005). Finally, infotainment is argued to have the potential to make news and politics pleasurable, which itself may be a prerequisite for political participation.
Despite uncertainty about its effects and disagreement about its significance, it is clear that infotainment is becoming an increasingly important phenomenon for democratic politics and public information. Informative and entertaining formats continue to become more deeply integrated; politicians have embraced such hybrid programming in their efforts to influence the citizenry; and for their part, members of the public continue to turn to the full range of program types in their efforts to learn about the world around them and to make political decisions. In turn, communication scholars increasingly are recognizing the need to develop sophisticated theoretical and methodological approaches to grapple with the fundamentally changing nature of mediated information.
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- Baum, M. (2003). Soft news and political knowledge: Evidence of absence or absence of evidence? Political Communication, 20, 173 –190.
- Baym, G. (2005). The Daily Show: Discursive integration and the reinvention of critical journalism. Political Communication, 22, 259 –276.
- Blumler, J. G., & Gurevitch, M. (1995). The crisis of public communication. London: Routledge.
- Brants, K. (1998). Who’s afraid of infotainment? European Journal of Communication, 13, 315 –335.
- Corner, J., & Pels, D. (2003). Media and the restyling of politics. London: Sage.
- Delli Carpini, M. X., & Williams, B. A. (1994). “Fictional” and “non-fictional” television celebrates Earth Day. Cultural Studies, 8, 74 – 98.
- Delli Carpini, M. X., & Williams, B. A. (2001). Let us infotain you: Politics in the new media environment. In W. L. Bennett & R. M. Entman (eds.), Mediated politics: Communication in the future of democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 160 –181.
- Graber, D. (1994). The infotainment quotient in routine television news. Discourse and Society, 5, 483 –508.
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- Moy, P., Xenos, M. A., & Hess, V. K. (2005). Communication and citizenship: Mapping the political effects of infotainment. Mass Communication and Society, 8, 111–131.
- Pfau, M., Cho, J., & Chong, K. (2001). Communication forms in U.S. presidential campaigns: Influence on candidate perceptions and the democratic process. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 6, 88 –106.
- Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Penguin.
- Van Zoonen, L. (2005). Entertaining the citizen: When politics and popular culture converge. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.