Any Good News in Soft News The Impact of Soft - Political...

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149 Political Communication, 20:149–171, 2003 Copyright 2003 Taylor & Francis 1058-4609/03 $12.00 + .00 DOI: 10.1080/10584600390211172 Any Good News in Soft News? The Impact of Soft News Preference on Political Knowledge MARKUS PRIOR Several scholars, most notably Matt Baum, have recently argued that soft news for- mats contribute to democratic discourse, because they attract viewers who would otherwise not be exposed to news at all. I extend Baum’s approach in two ways. First, Baum’s theory postulates that people’s appreciation of entertainment is one of the factors determining news exposure and, by extension, attention to politics, but he does not analyze the underlying utility calculation directly. I create a measure of entertainment preference and examine its impact on people’s preferred news for- mats. Second, while Baum’s analysis is restricted to attention paid to politics, I assess the effect of soft news preference on political knowledge. If soft news leads people to pay more attention to the “entertaining” aspect of politics, but does not actually produce any learning effects, the suggested positive consequences of soft news would have to be qualified. The main data source for this article is a survey of 2,358 randomly selected U.S. residents conducted by Knowledge Networks in Febru- ary and March 2002. Results show that people like soft news for its entertainment value but that soft news programs are still not very popular compared to hard news and pure entertainment. More critically, there is only very limited evidence that viewers actually learn from soft news. The positive consequences of soft news for the political process remain to be demonstrated. Keywords entertainment preference, hard news, news preference, political knowl- edge, soft news So-called “soft news” programs have proliferated in the last decade or so. According to a definition by Tom Patterson (2000, p. 4), soft news is “typically more sensational, more personality-centered, less time-bound, more practical, and more incident-based than other news.” 1 While critics have rushed to debate the normative implications of soft news, empirical assessments of the consequences of greater diversity of news formats are still rare. In the most important analysis to date, Matt Baum (2002b) shows that some people who would otherwise not watch any news at all pay attention to soft news I am grateful to David Brady, who made it possible for me to design the survey that pro- vides the data for this article. The writing of the article was supported in part by a Pew Summer Writing Fellowship from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. My thanks to Doug Arnold, Larry Bartels, Matt Baum, Michael Delli Carpini, and Jay Hamilton for many helpful comments. Markus Prior is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Communication at Stanford Univer- sity and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University.
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