A Fuzzy Picture

By Grygiel, Jakub | Harvard International Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

A Fuzzy Picture


Grygiel, Jakub, Harvard International Review


Jakub Grygiel reviews Soft News goes to War.

Writing on the freedom of the press in the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville commented that "people enjoying that freedom become attached to their opinions as much from pride as from conviction. They love them because they think them correct, but also because they have chosen them; and they stick to them, not only as something true but also as something of their very own." At the time of Tocqueville's trip to the United States, the main if not only--source of these opinions was the flourishing newspaper industry, which amazed the French political writer with its vigor and pervasiveness. One cannot help but wonder what Tocqueville would think of the more recent rise of "soft news" television programs in the United States, which are aimed at entertaining, rather than informing, the public. If US citizens pride themselves on steadfastly holding to their opinions, what happens when these convictions are shaped by the description of dramatic events, chosen more on the basis of their entertainment value than on their ability to provide relevant information? Matthew Baum's S0d9 News Goes to War provides a stimulating examination of this question.

Baum's main argument is that soft news television programs have an important yet insufficiently studied impact on US public opinion of foreign policy issues. Soft news programs, which are part of a larger trend in the proliferation of news sources such as the Internet, are characterized by a focus on human drama, rather than on the larger context or the deeper causes and consequences of events. Their format ranges from talk shows such as Dave Letterman's "Late Show," to imitation news programs including "Inside Edition" and "Entertainment Tonight." The spread of these increasingly tabloid-like programs, along with their growing focus on international events, has heightened public awareness of--or to use Baum's term for this phenomenon, "attentiveness" to--US foreign policy.

This change in public awareness has happened in two peculiar ways. First, soft news programs have expanded the audience for international affairs to a segment of the population that would otherwise remain unaware of what happens outside of the United States. The typical viewer of soft news is politically unsophisticated and, importantly, not very attentive to foreign policy. However, because international events often provide these programs with breathtaking episodes of human drama, soft news outlets have become a source (often the only source) of information on foreign policy for their viewers. For example, soft news focuses on the heroic rescue of a US fighter pilot downed by enemy forces, the plight of family members of soldiers sent abroad, and the casualties inflicted upon the enemy or suffered by US forces. By concentrating on such dramatic subjects, soft news programs effectively lower the threshold of accessibility to information on foreign policy. They are the "Cliffs Notes" of foreign policy for a large portion of the US public, providing summaries of events that ignore the finer details.

The increasing coverage of foreign policy in soft news has also influenced public opinion in other ways, beyond simply raising the level of awareness. Soft news is generally episodic and lacks a larger political context. The consumers of such programs are therefore aware that something is occurring abroad but are left without a clear understanding of the causes and consequences of the event and of the government's response to it. In other words, people who watch soft news become more "attentive," but they do not necessarily have more coherent or in-depth knowledge of foreign policy. …

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