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

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January 1, 2000, 3:32 pm

This report by Thomas Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Shorenstein Center, asks if the news media do well and also do good? Can they meet their need to attract audiences and also fulfill their responsibility to inform the public?

The news has changed greatly during the past two decades. In response to the intensely competitive media environment created by cable news and entertainment, news outlets have softened their coverage. Their news has also become increasingly critical in tone. Yet soft news and critical journalism have not stopped the decline in news audiences. Cable television and the Internet have cut deeply into the readership of newspapers and news magazines and into the viewing audiences for network and local newscasts. Soft news and critical journalism, whatever their initial effect, may now be hastening the decline in news audiences. Evidence also suggests that soft news and critical journalism are weakening the foundation of democracy by diminishing the public’s information about public affairs and its interest in politics.

This report presents evidence that suggests that attracting audiences and informing the public are compatible and mutually reinforcing. Patterson argues:

  • That hard news and not soft news is the reason why most people pay attention to news;
  • That people who prefer hard news are heavier consumers of news than those who prefer soft news;
  • That the trend toward soft news has contributed to declining interest in the news;
  • That hard news strategies are a viable response to a hyper-competitive media environment;
  • That critical journalism has weakened people’s interest in politics and, with that, their interest in news;
  • That journalists can temper critical journalism in ways that will heighten interest in politics and in news, and that will strengthen the press’s watchdog role.

These arguments are based on a two-year news study that included national surveys designed to measure Americans’ news habits, interests and preferences, and a content analysis of 5,331 news stories.

Download the report (PDF).