Infotainment, formally defined by Merriam-Webster's dictionary as “a television program that presents information (as news) in a manner intended to be entertaining,” is a neologism that refers to the blurring between information and entertainment in news and current affairs programming, whether it be in the selection of news stories (e.g., more emphasis on celebrity gossip, crime stories, and human interest pieces) or in their presentation (flashy graphics, sound effects, and sensationalism).
The media environment in the United States and around the world has undergone dramatic changes since the late 1970s and early 1980s. Not only have technological innovations changed the way citizens consume various media, but the structure of the industry has changed as well. Growing conglomerations of media companies have led to a dramatic increase not only in the amount of information available but also in competition for audiences. Newspaper readership is down as is viewership of the major network news programs. As audiences turn to Internet-based news sources, media companies are searching for ways to maintain if not expand their audience shares while increasing advertising revenues. News divisions of media companies, once treated by management as insulated from market pressures, are now considered additional sources of revenue. These economic challenges have helped blur the newsentertainment distinction as news producers rely on entertainment value to “sell” news stories.
Infotainment is a buzzword, first popularized in the 1980s, and commonly used by communications scholars and critics to describe the erosion of the line that once divided news (information) and entertainment. Historically, news organizations maintained a distinction between “hard” news and entertainment, or “soft” news, programming. Infotainment is generally used as a synonym for “soft” news, defined broadly as either
a residual category for all news that is not ‘hard,' as a particular vocabulary in presenting the news (e.g., more personal and familiar and less distant or institutional), and as a set of story characteristics, including the absence of a public policy component, sensationalized presentation, human-interest themes, and emphasis on dramatic subject matter, such as crime and disaster. (Baum 2003, 92)
So where does “soft” news, or infotainment, come from? It is often the result of standard journalistic practice combined with market influence. Researcher Doug Underwood describes five ways in which news and marketing goals interact. He argues that the “marketing and bottom-line influence” upon today's media can be seen in
the tabloid techniques adopted by ratings-fixated local television stations and the network television newsmagazines … the embrace of splashy visual techniques and news-you-can-use items by newspapers desperate to stem a four decade long readership slide … the explosion of salacious copy and scandal coverage in traditional media outlets and on the Internet … the mixing of entertainment, crime, and gossip with the news by television organizations trying to hold onto their audience; and the ‘synergy' of relentlessly expanding media conglomerates eager to treat the news as a ‘product' to be recast for the publicity, promotional, and marketing purposes of their integrated media holdings. (Underwood 2001, 100)
Taken together, this mixture of market forces and journalistic practices begets infotainment.
Defined as such, infotainment includes daytime television shows such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, entertainment news programs like Entertainment Tonight, talking-head forums such as Hannity and Colmes, and late-night talk shows including political punchlines from late-night host David Letterman or the satirical stylings of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. These types of programs convey political and public affairs information through humor, discussion panels, and feature stories, and try to do so in an entertaining, eye-catching manner. So do such news magazines as NBC's Dateline, which increasingly stress crime and human interest stories as opposed to hard news.
News programming and entertainment are not necessarily opposites, however. Entertainment television often has informative elements and news can often be entertaining in its presentation. It is now common for 24-hour American cable news channels and television network broadcasts to underpin stories using graphics, sound effects, and slogans. The presentation of news items in such a stylized, eye-catching manner is not new, nor is it limited to electronic media. USA Today has since 1981 packaged the news using graphics, charts, and flashy color photographs, putting as much or more emphasis on style than substance.
Media critics argue that by providing content in this manner, media are failing the public as a source of reliable information necessary to the democratic process. Others suggest that soft news and infotainment might actually be good for consumers. Researcher Matthew Baum claims that not only do large numbers of Americans consume soft news, but soft news programs also attract viewers normally not interested in political programming. By “piggy-backing” information about foreign policy and politics onto entertainment-oriented programs, these normally inattentive soft news consumers may actually gain information.
Media mergers promotes the atmosphere in which infotainment thrives. To take just one example, after America Online and Time Warner joined forces in 2000, the top executives at Turner Broadcasting, the parent company of CNN, were replaced by entertainment industry insiders with very little news experience. Large media conglomerates with diverse holdings including film production houses, magazines, book publishing companies, newspapers, and broadcast stations often use these outlets to promote their products. This cross-promotion of media holdings has made its way into news broadcasts. Celebrities are often interviewed by news anchors in order to promote their new films that are owned by the same parent companies.
Infotainment, while entertaining and good for the bottom line, takes up time and space that might otherwise be filled with more important (“serious,” “hard”) news items. Put another way, what is not making it on the air or into the press? One reason infotainment is so appealing to news editors is that it is unlikely to offend viewers. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu concluded that “part of the symbolic function of television, in the case of the news, for example, is to call attention to those elements that will engage everybody—which offer something for everyone. These are things that will not shock anyone, where nothing is at stake, that do not divide, are generally agreed on, and interest everybody without touching on anything important.” When viewers, and the advertising dollars they bring, matter, the temptation to air infotainment-oriented programming is heightened.
The rise of infotainment is a mainly result of market forces and pressure to constantly grab the viewer's attention and keep them tuned in. One reason for the increase in “news you can use” items, feature stories, and localized topics is the perception of news consultants and editors that this is what the public wants. CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour once told a group of news executives,
Think of how much more of a contribution we could make to this great society if we weren't so dependent on what I call those hocus-pocus-focus awful groups who tell us what people are not interested in…. time has proven that all the gimmicks and all the cheap journalism can only carry us so far. (quoted in Anderson 2004, 29)
Whether consultants, market researchers, and news “gatekeepers” are correct is debatable, but one result of the glut of infotainment is less coverage of government and the bureaucracy. Although their decisions may be vital to local citizens, city council or school board meetings rarely sell newspapers; scandals involving Hollywood celebrities do. If the role of the press in a free society is to give the public the information they need to be self-governing, in addition to the programming they may want, the implications of infotainment-saturated news content may be having large and lasting effects.
Criticism of Journalism, Entertainment Journalism, Hard Versus Soft News, Lifestyle Journalism, Sensationalism, Tabloid Newspapers, Tabloid Television
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