Obama’s Dream Date and More: The Double-edged Sword of Soft News

On September 25, Jon Stewart criticized President Obama for appearing on entertainment talk show The View the same week of the United Nations General Assembly, where he did not plan on meeting individually with any world leaders in town for the event.  While Stewart was using the appearance as a punch line for The Daily Show, the prevalence of political candidates wooing soft news outlets such as The View, Entertainment Tonight, and local radio stations, has become worrying.  Politico reported in August that Obama has held half as many press availabilities as Bush and Clinton had at the same point in their campaigns, and out of 35 media interviews in July, 26 were with local outlets, who rarely ask tough questions. But is “soft news”–entertainment-style political stories with little policy information–actually hurting America and its voters, or is it providing political knowledge to otherwise uninformed citizens?

Several studies have been conducted in the past few/several years on soft news and its effects. Baum and Jamison (2006), Baum (2002), and Prior (2003) have all conducted research which examine the potential benefits of soft news, namely that some citizens may get at least a small amount of political knowledge from soft news coverage that they might not receive at all otherwise.  Although Prior (2003) states that those who prefer soft news over hard news are less knowledgeable on political and other current affairs issues, Baum (2002) found that audiences who were not interested in politics did gain knowledge about foreign policy from soft news stories on wars and other foreign crises.  Soft news outlets cover the human-interest side of conflicts (Baum 2002), but they are still providing a valuable service to the uninterested public, who often find newspaper articles or television reports too complex to comprehend.  Baum and Jamison (2006) also examined the so-called “Oprah effect” and found that among citizens who consumed no hard news, those with greater exposure to soft news such as talk shows were more likely to vote for a candidate who was aligned with their own values.

The findings in these studies seem to support the statement that soft news can increase political knowledge in those who do not actively seek out the facts in hard news, however they leave many questions unanswered. For example, given the current presidential candidates’ preferences for engaging with soft news, it would seem they are assuming that reaching out to a soft news audience will increase engagement and voter turnout, but that question has not been thoroughly examined.

The Obama’s are covered extensively even when their outings are of no political relevance; there are countless articles on Michelle’s fashion choices, the restaurants they dine at, and Barack’s interest in sports such as basketball.  A quick search “Michelle Obama” on People.com reveals an entire section of articles with titles such as “Bo Obama is on a Diet”, and “Michelle Obama Details her Dream Anniversary Date with the President.” (People.com, 2012)  These are no doubt the easier stories to cover, especially when pictures can be added to back up a short blurb, and they are simpler to digest for an audience who is not well versed in politics.  Campaigns today see value in these outlets as they can make a candidate appear more personable without delving into the serious issues, and as the Politico (2012) article states, most of the public doesn’t care that the serious press outlets feel left out.

However, it is clear that soft-news is a double edged sword, and although entertainment-type stories may make candidates more appealing, they probably do not encourage viewers to go and research Obama’s economic plan, or Romney’s thoughts on healthcare. While it is important to have some political coverage in soft news outlets to reach a wider audience than the political junkies, this should not be an excuse for politicians to ignore more hard-hitting outlets.  If campaigns want to interact with local and soft news outlets they should do so without sacrificing their exposure to outlets that will provide a more complex view of the policy issues.  It is especially important for politicians to be available to all media types when, as Jake Tapper stated, current media policies set the precedent for future media policies, and: “today’s defenders of today’s president may not find tomorrow’s president’s avoidance of questions not about chili or fave songs as acceptable” (Politico 2012)

References

Baum. M. A. (2002). Sex, lies and war: How soft news brings foreign policy to the inattentive public American Political Science Review, 96(1), 91-101.

Baum, M.A. & Jamison, A. S. (2006). The Oprah effect: How soft news helps inattentive citizens vote consistently. The Journal of Politics, 68(4), 946-959

People.com (2012). Michelle Obama page. Retrieved from http://www.people.com/people/michelle_obama/0,,,00.html.

Prior, M. (2003). Any good news in soft news? The impact of soft news preference on political knowledge. Political communication, 20. 149-171.

Tau, B. & Byers, D. (2012, August 17). Obama’s soft-news strategy. Politico.

Roxana Elliott

Roxana is a former student at CCT. She graduated from George Washington University in 2010 with a BA in Psychology, and at CCT studies media and politics, including the effects of celebrity and soft political news on candidates and campaigns. She also loves to cook and travel, and dreams of a life where she is constantly flown to exotic places just to eat delicious meals.