The Inherent Arbitrariness of the ‘News’ versus ‘Entertainment’ Distinction

Michael X. Delli Carpini, University of Pennsylvania

I suspect that readers of this essay would agree that a functioning “public sphere,” supported by a vibrant, discursive “public culture,” and leading to “reasoned public choice” is a fundamental requisite of any truly democratic polity. I also suspect that there is a good deal less agreement on what we mean by the “public sphere,” “public culture,” “reasoned public choice,” and even a “democratic polity.” This disagreement is both inevitable and healthy. Inevitable in that, as democratic theorists such as William Connolly note, the meaning of any “keyword” is socially constructed and thus “essentially contestable” by its very nature. Healthy in that the foundation of democracy – in my socially constructed meaning of the word at least – is the discursive processes by which such meanings are created, challenged, defended, renewed and/or revised.

Regardless of one’s particular twist on these terms, it seems clear that in large, advanced industrial or post-industrial democracies the mass media play a central and complex role in advancing or inhibiting the quality of the public sphere, public culture and reasoned public choice. They do so, as over 50 years of theory and research suggest, by providing citizens with information, by shaping the public agenda, and by framing issues in ways that subtly prime and at times directly shape individual and collective attitudes, opinions and behaviors. At the same time, the mass media are political actors with particular interests in their own right. They are sources of political motivation or despair. They are facilitators or inhibitors of public culture. And they are “places” where discourse and deliberation take place – public spheres in and of themselves.

This central and complex role of the mass media is the bread and butter of much political communication research. And the almost exclusive focus of this research – at least among quantitative scholars – has been “the news.” This is in many ways an understandable choice, given the distinction between news and entertainment that has dominated the mass media at least since the rise of television; the 20th century definition of news as the product of professional journalists operating as detached observers presenting objective, balanced facts; and the belief that “reasoned public choice” requires citizens who think and act in an informed and dispassionate way.

But while this focus is understandable, it is, as I and my coauthor Bruce Williams argue in a forthcoming book, wrong for three reasons.

First, despite the seeming naturalness of the distinction between news and entertainment media, it is remarkably difficult to identify the characteristics upon which this distinction is based. In fact, it is difficult — we would argue impossible — to articulate a theoretically useful definition of this distinction. The opposite of “news” is not “entertainment,” as the news is often diversionary or amusing (the definition of entertainment) and what is called “entertainment” is often neither of these things. One might instead use the terms “public affairs” media and “popular culture,” but these distinctions also collapse under the slightest scrutiny. Does the definition of public affairs media require that it be unpopular? Does the broadcasting of a presidential address shift from public affairs to popular culture because it is watched by too many people? And how does one classify the many magazine stories, novels, movies, web sites, and television shows (in all their rapidly changing formats such as melodramas, docudramas, docusoaps, blogs, social networking sites, and talk shows) that address issues of public concern? Clearly the concept of popular culture does not provide a counterpoint to public affairs. To the contrary, the “public” in public affairs is meant to signal that the issues discussed are of importance to a substantial segment of the citizenry, and most of what is studied under this heading is popular by any reasonable definition of this term. Consider, for example, that while the final episode of the first season of the television “reality” show, Survivor, received extensive press coverage for being watched by over 50 million viewers, the second presidential debate in 1996 drew almost twice as many viewers and there was much disappointment when the first debate in 2000 – the premiere year of Survivor – was viewed by only 46 million people.

The difficulty in even naming the categories upon which we base so fundamental a distinction is more than semantics. It cuts to the heart of the complexity and artificiality of this distinction. A more useful approach might be to identify the key characteristics that are assumed to distinguish politically-relevant from politically-irrelevant media. But this does more to blur than salvage the traditional news/non-news categories. Public affairs media address real world issues of relevance or concern to a significant percentage of the citizenry, but so, too, does much of what traditionally would fall outside of this genre: one would be hard pressed to find any substantive topic found in the news that has not also been the subject of ostensibly non-news media. And public affairs media generally, and the news more specifically, regularly address issues of culture, celebrity, and personality.

Even attempts to distinguish “hard news” from “soft news” or “features” do little to clarify things. For example, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Karlyn Campbell define hard news (the part of public affairs media that would seem most distinctive from non-news and most relevant to politics) as “the report of an event that happened or was discussed within the previous twenty-four hours and treats an issue of ongoing concern.” They go on to describe the specific characteristics of a hard-news story as one that is: (1) personalized; (2) dramatic, conflict-filled, controversial, and violent; (3) actual and concrete as opposed to theoretical or abstract; (4) novel or deviant; and (5) linked to issues of ongoing concern in the media. And yet many hard-news stories clearly lack one or more of these characteristics, while many soft-news stories and non-news genres contain several or all of these characteristics.

Attempting to define public affairs media or the news in broader strokes does little to resolve this conceptual dilemma. No less a student of journalism than Walter Lippmann in 1922 defined news as simply “the signalizing of an event.” And yet “entertainment media” often plays this role, drawing the public’s attention to issues and events of social and political import. This is certainly the case with the jokes or satire of late-night talk show hosts. It is also true of movies, such as the 2004 Hollywood blockbuster, The Day After Tomorrow, which presented a fictionalized account of the effects of global warming. Indeed, the movie generated a large amount of coverage in the traditional news media, essentially putting global warming back on the public agenda for a brief period. Similarly, the controversial television docudrama The Path to 9/11 was broadcast to “signalize” the importance of the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. In short, all of the usual characteristics we associate with news or public affairs can be found in other media, and those we associate with popular or entertainment media can be found in traditional news.

A second reason we argue against our field’s collective focus on “news” as the only politically-relevant portion of the mass media is the context-dependent nature of the news versus entertainment distinction. Looked at from a broader historical perspective, it becomes clear that in the United States at least, we have lived through a number of relatively distinct “media regimes,” each with its own economically, politically, culturally and technologically driven assumptions about the role of media, citizens and elites in democratic life. Each of these earlier regimes – the explicitly “partisan press” of the early U.S. republic; the salacious “penny press” of the mid 19th century; the “age of realism” in the latter 19th century; even the “progressive era” of the early 20th century (from which many of the now familiar distinctions between professional journalists and average citizens, objectivity and subjectivity, fact and opinion, and entertainment and news first emerged) – had unique strengths and weaknesses. Each eventually came to be seen as “natural.” Each eventually gave way to a new regime. But none reified the news versus entertainment distinction to the extent seen in the era dominated by broadcast news.

How can something so contingent appear so commonsensical? Become so reified? The answer is multifaceted, but in part it is due to the politics, economics, and technologies of broadcast television that created a particular narrative (emerging in part from the work of Walter Lippmann and codified in the Hutchins Commission report and later in Siebert, Peterson and Schramm’s Four Theories of the Press) regarding the limited abilities and responsibilities of citizens, the central role of “experts” in democratic governance, the ability to salvage the benefits of a “marketplace of ideas” in a system dominated by a centralized mass media, and the importance of professional journalists as neutral information providers and public watchdogs. This narrative produced a stable if unstated “collusion” between producers and audiences that led to the widespread acceptance of the boundaries of the news genre.

News producers’ contribution to this collusion consisted of a set of institutional structures and processes that also reinforced the news-entertainment distinction: the design of media organizations into separate news and entertainment divisions; the assumption that public affairs programming would be free from (or less tied to) expectations of profitability; trade distinctions between news and entertainment media; the physical layout and labeling of segments of publications and programs so as to distinguish news from analysis or opinion, and “hard” news from “soft” news or features; the routinization of program schedules (local news in the early evening followed immediately by national news; local news again at 10 or 11 PM; political talk shows on Sunday mornings); the professionalization of journalists; the development of formal and informal standard operating procedures to assist in determining newsworthiness; and the limited number of television stations available to citizens all of which broadcast news at the same time. Many of these distinctions were formerly codified in the 1920s through the early 1950s by, among others, the Federal Radio (1927) and Federal Communications (1934) Commissions; professional associations such as the American Society of Newspaper Editors (1922), the National Association of Broadcasters (1923), and the Newspapers Guild (1933); the privately funded Commission on Freedom of the Press (1947); and codes of conduct created by the movie (1930), radio (1937) and television (1952) industries.

The audience also played a key if indirect role in maintaining the distinctions between public affairs and popular culture upon which the news as a genre depends. Average citizens were assumed to have met their public responsibility by watching the evening news (and were effectively blocked by the small number of stations, all carrying the nightly news, from watching anything else). Readers of prestige news magazines and newspapers, and viewers of Sunday morning political talk shows constituted the “attentive public:” a self-selected segment of the population representing a more elite social, economic, and political strata of citizens. This elite audience signaled the serious nature of what was being read or watched, distinguishing it from “popular” media. This distinction was even drawn within specific media texts, as when William Randolph Hearst saw his new op-ed page as “aimed directly at more educated and affluent readers.” As with the more general distinction between “high brow” and “low brow” culture, political significance and insignificance were defined more by the organization of producing institutions and the make-up of the audience than by actual content.

Pointing out the degree to which the media regime dominated by broadcast news was the outcome of economic and technological changes as well as of political debate and struggle – rather than of more compelling and theoretically sound distinctions – does not diminish the considerable advantages that flowed from it. Most importantly, for the first time the broadcast system of the middle years of the 20th century created a national public which daily considered a common set of images and mediated experiences. Colin Leys captures the central political advantage of the Age of Broadcast News and what is lost with its passing: “In retrospect, the era of two or three channels may be seen as constituting a unique historical moment in which complex modern societies had for a couple of decades something like a single forum for their most important ‘formative conversations’; not a forum that offered universal or even broadly representative access to the podium, but one that was at least more or less universally attended.” Yet, it is important to note that this achievement of the electronic media did not depend on making a distinction between news and entertainment.

Which leads to our third and final reason for questioning – as citizens or as scholars – the utility of the news versus entertainment distinction. We have, for the last two decades, been living in a world that is anathema to this distinction. The underlying technological, political, economic, and culture conditions that produced and maintained this distinction have eroded beyond recognition. For better or worse, there is no returning to it. These changes are familiar: the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War; the rhetorical triumph of market capitalism; the rise of identity politics; the deregulation of media and with it their already limited public interest obligations; the decline in viewers and readers of traditional news and the subsequent effects of this decline on professional journalism; the hyper-concentration of media ownership; the softening of traditional news content; the advent of 24 hour cable news and its opinionated, often explicitly ideological formats; the explosion of cable and satellite channels; the rise of infotainment genres of various stripes; technologies such as mobile phones, PDAs and DVRs; and, of course, the Internet and its constantly morphing array of seemingly infinite sites that break down geographic and temporal barriers and defy distinctions between producer and consumer, fact or opinion or news and entertainment, but that simultaneously replace old gatekeepers such as professional journalists with new ones such as Google. It is a world in which any piece of information is one click of a mouse or a remote control (or one touch of a screen) away from its refutation. It is a world that is, borrowing from Baudrillard and Fiske, both hyperreal and multiaxial.

This is the moment in which we currently live. One in which the institutions, norms and practices of the past no longer apply, but in which no new “media regime” has formed to take its place. It is in these transitional moments between regimes that the constructed nature of prior periods becomes visible, and when we are collectively most likely to revisit fundamental questions regarding the role of the mass media in a democratic society. But if the past is any guide, such moments will pass, with a new regime, with its own institutions, norms and practices, and with its own “winners” and “losers,” coming into place and becoming the “natural” order of things.

How do we assess the impact of this new order of things? We make no claims to knowing the answer to this question, but a starting point is to abandon the news versus entertainment categories, focusing instead on the democratic utility of various media and genres. In doing so, four qualities (or any particular media text or medium, as well as regarding the media environment more broadly) strike us as particularly relevant: “transparency” (i.e., knowing who is speaking to us from the media soapbox); “pluralism” (i.e., being sure that multiple viewpoints that are representative of the underlying diversity of opinion are being expressed); “verisimilitude” (i.e., knowing that the content of the media is designed to help understand something “true” about the topic in question); and “practice” (i.e., that the media facilitates rather than inhibits citizen engagement in public life). These yardsticks (and undoubtedly others) are designed to preserve what is arguably best about prior regimes, but would apply to anyone who mounts (or helps build) the media soapbox, be that Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, Jon Stewart, or Jane Q. Public. And they would apply to any media and any genre.

In short, we are arguing that as both citizens and scholars we are at a critical juncture regarding the democratic promises and pitfalls of the new media environment in which we live. This emerging environment and how we construct it rhetorically, normatively and institutionally will play a crucial role in the nature of our public sphere, public culture and reasoned public choice; in the way these core concepts of democracy are created, challenged, defended, renewed and/or revised. There are no right or wrong answers here, other than trying to assure that as many citizens as possible are part of this ongoing process of constructing our democracy.

Let me conclude by tying my thoughts to those expressed by Michael Schudson, Lauren Berlant, James Curran and Shanto Iyengar. Michael Schudson correctly notes that the meaning of “the good citizen” has changed throughout our history, a point with which I fully concur. But it is important to remember that these changing meanings cannot be separated from the institutional contexts from which they emerge, and that neither these contexts nor the resulting definitions of the citizen are the only way things can or even should be. Lauren Berlant takes notice of these larger constraints, suggesting that because of them citizens’ most reasonable political act may sometimes be a politically motivated silence or withdrawal. Her wonderful notion of “ambient citizenship,” which I take to signal the embedded “in between-ness” of contemporary citizenship (between public and private, reason and emotion, engagement and withdrawal, object and subject, observer and participant, etc.), is a powerful one, but not unlike Schudson it takes the larger political, economic and cultural environment in which we operate as a given; as something to react to. Perhaps because of my naiveté, or perhaps because of my training as a political scientist, both these viewpoints strike me as under-theorizing the politics of all this: politics defined, as David Easton does, as the authoritative allocation of goods, services and values. It is in this authoritative process that citizens’ voices should be heard. Democracy is intended to allow this. Public spheres are where this democratic process should play out. Our public culture should be one that is premised on and integrated into this democratic vision. And, as James Curran’s and Shanto Iyengar’s research (though to my mind still too accepting of the distinction between news and entertainment) makes clear, the design of the media systems in which this all occurs matters to at least one requisite of democratic citizenship: knowledge about the world in which we live.

Michael Schudson argues that we think of the character of Lisa Simpson (from the animated television series The Simpsons) as the “ideal citizen,” but that in reality most of us come much closer to Homer Simpson. For me the value of this analogy is in demonstrating the constructed nature of our narratives about citizens and the role “entertainment media” plays this construction. Are we really like Homer? Do we want to be? Must we be? These are the questions, and it is not clear to me the answer to any of them is “yes.” With apologies to those of you unfamiliar with the series, in the end citizens are made up of a mix “Lisa’s” and “Homer’s” and “Marge’s” and “Bart’s,” as well as “Mr. Burn’s” and “Mayor Quimby’s” and “Apu’s.” A world of all Lisa Simpson may be a fantasy, but a world without her would be a tragedy. And, I would add, a world with more citizen’s like her remains a possibility – if they are given the opportunity.

[This essay is based on a talk delivered at the mini-plenary “Keywords:The Public Sphere, Public Culture and Reasoned Public Choice” of the 59th Annual ICA Conference in Chicago, May 22, 2009.—ed.]

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