Infotainment (a portmanteau of information and entertainment), also called soft news, is a type of media, usually television, that provides a combination of information and entertainment. The term is usually used disapprovingly against more serious hard news. Many existing, self-described infotainment websites and social media apps provide a variety of functions and services.
The label "infotainment" is emblematic of concern and criticism that journalism is devolving from a medium which conveys serious information about issues affecting public interest, into a form of entertainment which happens to have fresh "facts" in the mix. The criteria by which reporters and editors judge news value—whether something is worth putting on the front page, the bottom of the hour, or is worth commenting on at all—are integral parts of this debate. Some blame the media for this perceived phenomenon, for failing to live up to ideals of civic journalistic responsibility, while others blame the commercial nature of many media organizations, the need for higher ratings, combined with a preference among the public for feel-good content and "unimportant" topics such as celebrity gossip or sports. In a critique of infotainment, Bonnie Anderson of News Flash cited a CNN lead story on February 2, 2004 following the exposure of Janet Jackson's breast on national television. The follow-up story was about a ricin chemical attack on then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
A specialization process has also occurred, beginning with the rise of mass market special-interest magazines, moving into broadcast with the advent of cable television, and continuing into new media such as the Internet and satellite radio. An increasing number of media outlets are available to the public which exclusively focus on single topics such as current events, home improvement, history, movies, women and Christianity. Consumers have a broad choice whether they receive a general feed of the most "important" information of the day or a highly customized presentation of a single type of content. Highly customized content streams may not be considered newsworthy nor contain a neutral point of view. Some publications and channels have found a sizable audience in the "niche" of featuring hard news.
Controversy has continued over the size of the audience and whether outlets are diluting content with too much "soft" news. The distinction between journalists and anchors versus reporters are "human interest", personality, or celebrity news story pieces. Soft news reporters and stories are typically directed by marketing share departments based on a demographic appeal and audience share. It is commonly accepted news anchors are also media personalities which may also be considered celebrities. Media outlets commonly use on-air personalities for their public appeal to promote the network's investments similar to the regular broadcast schedule including self-promotion and advertising. Critics might go so far as to view anchors as a weak link, representing the misplacement of both the credit and the accountability of a news journalism organization—hence adding to a perceived erosion of journalistic standards throughout the news business. (See yellow journalism.)
Most infotainment television programs on networks and broadcast cable only contain general information on the subjects they cover and should not be considered to be formal learning or instruction. An example of a broadcast may include accusations of a celebrity or other individual committing a crime with no verifiable factual support or evidence of such claims. It can be said that many viewers and social critics disapprove of how media, particularly TV and cable, seem to hurtle from one event to another, often dwelling on trivial, celebrity-driven content As seen with the commodification celebrities and public figures/leaders, news media is more frequently commodifying and selling the stories of people's lives for pure viewer reaction and entertainment as opposed to more focus being placed on real stories with informative meaning behind them.
In October 2010 at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, American political satirist Jon Stewart made a metaphorical statement regarding the media today: "The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems . . . illuminating issues heretofore unseen, or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected, dangerous flaming ant epidemic." This statement referred to the news media's ability to focus in on the real problems of people, and transform them into what is known as infotainment, when this information is solely provided for the public's entertainment. Today's broadcasting of informative news is often diluted with stories of scandal, although this is no concern for media and news broadcasters because if you can keep enough viewers week after week focused on whatever is that next "flaming ant epidemic" (e.g., a congressman's sexual indiscretions, conspiracy theories about the president's birth certificate and other examples related to politainment), you can boost audience ratings and sell ads at higher rates
Some define "journalism" only as reporting on "serious" subjects, where common journalistic standards are upheld by the reporter. Others believe that the larger "news business" encompasses everything from professional journalism to so-called "soft news" and "infotainment", and support activities such as marketing, advertising sales, finance and delivery. Nevertheless, a differentiation of the two concepts of "hard news" and "soft news" is controversial. Professional journalism is supposed to place more emphasis on research, fact-checking, and the public interest than its "non-journalistic" counterparts. Because the term "news" is quite broad, the terms "hard" and "soft" denote both a difference in respective standards for news value, as well as for standards of conduct, relative to the professional ideals of journalistic integrity.
The idea of hard news embodies two orthogonal concepts:
- Seriousness: Politics, economics, crime, war, and disasters are considered serious topics, as are certain aspects of law, business, science, and technology.
- Timeliness: Stories that cover current events—the progress of a war, the results of a vote, the breaking out of a fire, a significant statement, the freeing of a prisoner, an economic report of note.
The logical opposite, soft news is sometimes referred to in a derogatory fashion as infotainment. Defining features catching the most criticism include:
- The least serious subjects: Arts and entertainment, sports, lifestyles, "human interest", and celebrities.
- Not timely: There is no precipitating event triggering the story, other than a reporter's curiosity.
Timely events happen in less serious subjects—sporting matches, celebrity misadventures, movie releases, art exhibits, and so on.
There may also be serious reports which are not event-driven—coverage of important social, economic, legal, or technological trends— investigative reports which uncover ongoing corruption, pollution, or immorality— or discussion of unsettled political issues without any special reason. Anniversaries, holidays, the end of a year or season, or the end of the first 100 days of an administration, can make some stories time-sensitive, but provide more of an opportunity for reflection and analysis than any actual "news" to report.
The spectrum of "seriousness" and "importance" is not well-defined, and different media organizations make different tradeoffs. "News you can use", a common marketing phrase highlighting a specific genre of journalism, spans the gray area. Gardening tips and hobby "news" pretty clearly fall at the entertainment end. Warnings about imminent natural disasters or acute domestic security threats (such as air raids or terrorist attacks) are considered so important that broadcast media (even non-news channels) usually interrupt other programming to announce them. A medical story about a new treatment for breast cancer, or a report about local ground water pollution might fall in between. So might book reviews, or coverage of religion. On the other hand, people frequently find hobbies and entertainment to be worthwhile parts of their lives and so "importance" on a personal level is rather subjective.
Entertainment and news crossovers
Infotainment is generally identified by its entertaining nature through the use of flashy graphics, fast-paced editing, music, and the use sensationalism or satire. Popular examples include Entertainment Tonight, Hannity and Colmes, The Daily Show, and shows that would not be classified as news earlier, such as The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Infotainers are entertainers in infotainment media, such as news anchors or satirists who cross the line between journalism (quasi-journalism) and entertainment. Barbara Walters, was for many an infotainer icon. She pioneered the many techniques used in the Infotainment media today. Other notable examples in the U.S. media are Jon Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow and Geraldo Rivera among others.
When Geraldo Rivera became the host of his own news-oriented talk show on CNBC, others within the NBC organization voiced their protest, including Tom Brokaw who was reported to have threatened to quit. Rivera had a notorious history as a "sleaze reporter" and daytime talk show host, where he and one or two others were representative of "Tabloid talk shows"; television seen to have little social value or redeeming intelligence, but still popular with viewers.
The broadcast of important or interesting events was originally meant simply to inform society of local or international events for their own safety and awareness. However, local news broadcasters are more regularly commodifying local events to provoke titillation and entertainment in viewers. Commodification is known as the process by which material objects are turned into marketable goods with monetary (exchange) value. Essential qualities of human beings and their products are converted into commodities, into things for buying and selling on the market, just as entertaining stories are sold to buy the attention of viewers.
Commodity fetishism is the process through which commodities are emptied of the meaning of their production (the labour that produced them and the context in which they were produced) and filled instead with the abstract meaning (usually through advertising). At their worst, the media's appetite for telling and selling stories leads them not only to document tragedy, but also to misrepresent or exploit it As often seen in the news (with stories of extreme obesity or unusual deformities) present-day "infotainment" commodifies humans through their personal tragedies or scandals, providing entertainment and titillation to public viewers.
Social media implications
The topic of news media today being more commonly considered “infotainment” has increased with the growing popularity and use of social media applications. These popular social media outlets are what German theorist Jürgen Habermas would define as the "public sphere". According to Habermas, it defines a social space (which may be virtual) in which citizens come together to debate and discuss the present issues of their society. The term has been used more recently in the plural to refer to the multiple public spheres in which people debate contemporary issues. In the case of social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook, which were originally created for the purpose of connecting, re-connecting and sharing personal thoughts and information with public, they have now provided a new medium for the spread of "infotainment" and exploitation of public matters. There is no doubt that these social media websites are dominating, and what is so pressing about the matter is the fact that alongside cell phone technology, these ways of online communication are becoming prominent to the simple relaying of informative news. Of necessity, a commodity-based society produces such phantom objectivity, and in so doing it obscures its roots. The public society are relying more frequently on television news broadcasting and now social media outlets to obtain a mixture of information and entertainment updates which are known as "infotainment."
The terms "infotainment" and "infotainer" were first used in September 1980 at the Joint Conference of Aslib, the Institute of Information Scientists and the Library Association in Sheffield, UK. The Infotainers were a group of British information scientists who put on comedy shows at their professional conferences between 1980 and 1990. In 1983, infotainment began to see more popular usage Around this time, infotainment gradually began to replace soft news with communications theorists.
An earlier, and slightly variant term, "infortainment" was coined in 1974 as the title of the 1974 convention of the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System (IBS), the association of college radio stations in the United States. It took place on April 5–7, 1974, at the Statler Hilton Hotel, now the Hotel Pennsylvania. It was defined as the "nexus between Information and Entertainment".
- Automotive head unit – Centerpiece of the car's sound and information system
- Documentary television
- In-car entertainment
- Junk food news – A sardonic term for news stories that deliver "sensationalized, personalized, and homogenized inconsequential trivia"
- Least objectionable program
- Product placement
- Subliminal stimuli – Sensory stimuli below an individual's threshold for conscious perception
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