The nature of news content has changed during the past decades due to the changes in media environment. As new media such as cable television, satellite television, and the Internet have appeared, the news media market has become more competitive than ever and news contents have tended to be more audience-oriented and softer. The problem is that soft news is not only “weakening the foundation of democracy by diminishing the public’s information about public affairs and its interest in politics” but also “has increased dramatically as a proportion of news coverage” (Patterson 2000, 2).
The definition of soft news varies, but one of its common characterizations is “all the news that is not hard news”(Davis 1996, 108–109). Hard news may then be defined by coverage of breaking events involving top leaders, major issues, or significant disruptions in the routines of daily life, such as an earthquake or airline disaster (Smith 1985).
One difference between hard and soft news is the tone of presentation. While a hard news story tells its audience the facts regarding what happens and leaves it up to the audience to decide what to do with the information, a soft news story tries instead to entertain or advise the reader. For instance, newspaper or TV stories may promise “news you can use.” Examples might be tips on how to stretch properly before exercising, or what to look for when buying a new computer. Soft news has also been identified by certain characteristics. It has been described, e.g., as news that is typically more sensational, more personality oriented, less time-bound, more practical, and more incident-based than other news (Spragens 1995). Knowing the difference between hard and soft news helps the audience develop a sense of how news is covered and what sorts of stories different news media tend to publish or broadcast.
The examples of soft news abound in the real media world. These include tabloid, syndicated, US-based programs like Hard Copy, and nightly network newscast features on personal finance, consumer affairs, and health. The regular features of network news magazines – Dateline NBC, ABC Primetime Live, CBS 48 Hours, and the made-for-softnews spin-off ABC 20/20 Downtown – are “notorious” for their soft news formats.
Major print media outlets rate only marginally better than television at providing hard news over soft news coverage. The leading example of newspaper soft news journalism is USA Today, which from its inception has adopted an editorial direction that seeks a “television in print” style, with a heavy emphasis on color, photos, flashy graphics, brief articles, and coverage of lifestyle, entertainment, and “news you can use.” Many newspapers around the world have copied the model. Elite newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post in the US, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Germany, or Le Monde in France have avoided the USA Today approach, making purposive editorial decisions to build readership through in-depth journalism focused on public affairs. Other newspapers, however, like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the US or the Independent in the United Kingdom, have weakened their strong journalistic traditions by attempting to compete with television on television’s terms, and by combining business with editorial departments (Underwood 2001).
In the magazine industry, many publications have taken a soft news approach to public affairs. Newsweek and Time routinely feature soft journalism cover stories. For example, across the eight issues released in March and April 2001, Time ran cover stories on phobias, yoga, Jesus (an annual Easter rite), how to a raise a “superkid,” and the death of race car driver, Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
In another perspective, Patterson (2000) found that soft news has increased while hard news has decreased. He proposed that soft news has been defined as more personal and familiar in its form of presentation and less distant and institutional. He found a dramatic change in the vocabulary, consistent with the soft news thesis: collectives and selfreferences. That is, during the past two decades, reporters’ use of collective words (crowd, army, congress, country, etc.), which are part of the vocabulary of hard news, has declined substantially, while their use of the self-references category (I, me, myself, etc.), from the vocabulary of soft news, has increased substantially.
The growth of soft news is rooted in marketing studies that indicate entertainmentbased news can attract and hold audiences. According to Patterson (2000), Americans tend to believe the news has declined in quality. People who think the news has gone “soft” are more likely to say its quality has deteriorated.
Then do people prefer soft news to hard news in general? Some have insisted that the increase of soft news has occurred because it can attract more audience attention. The play theory and the uses and gratification model explain that the consumption of soft news can be viewed as a vehicle by which such enjoyment is obtained, and therefore audiences prefer soft news (Palmgreen & Rayburn 1985; Rayburn et al. 1984; Stephenson 1988). The results of Patterson’s survey, however, suggest otherwise. The report indicated that “hard news is more appealing than soft news to most people” (Patterson 2000, 7). This suggests that hard news consumers are the foundation of the news audience and those who prefer hard news devote a lot more time to news.
Thus, although soft news has been the industry’s answer to the problem of shrinking audiences, it may be diminishing the overall level of interest in news. Furthermore, it may be causing, ironically, the decrease in the news audience, with serious implications for democracy. Soft news distorts the public’s perception of what the journalist Walter Lippmann called “the world outside.” As Patterson (2000, 15) pointed out, “the irony is that, in the long run, these distortions also make that world a less attractive and inviting one. Interest in public affairs declines and so, too, does interest in news.”
- Davis, R. (1996). The press and American politics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Palmgreen, P., & Rayburn, J. D. (1985). A comparison of gratification model of media satisfaction. Communication Monographs, 52, 334–345.
- Patterson, T. E. (2000). Doing well and doing good: How soft news are shrinking the news audience and weakening democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Sony Corporation
- Patterson, T. (2001). 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. Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University.
- Rayburn, J. D., Palmgreen, P., & Acker, T. (1984). Media gratifications and choosing a morning news program. Journalism Quarterly, 61(1), 149–156.
- Smith, F. L. (1985). Perceptives on radio and television. New York: Harper and Row.
- Spragens, W. C. (1995). Electronic magazines. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Stephenson, W. (1988). The play theory of mass communication. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Underwood, D. (2001). Reporting and the push for market oriented journalism: Media organizations as business. In L. Bennett and R. Entman (eds.), Mediated politics: Communication in the future of democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 99–117.