Information is power: those who possess actual knowledge of current events can easier find themselves in the complicated stream of everyday life, as well as classify their understanding of what is going on, make appropriate conclusions, and undertake corresponding action.
Curiosity for information lies deep in human nature, and for centuries on end people have involved in the process of information sharing. Nowadays, the task of rendering the most actual and up-to-date information lies on the institute of mass media, and one of the key genres of information delivery is TV news programs.
Originally designed for the purposes of mere informing of key current events, news programs are observed to have evolved into more entertaining events. A special notion of ‘infotainment’ appeared, that designates the deviation of news from their informative function into the sphere of entertainment. Pursuing the objective of commercial profit, modern news programs embody the principle of infotainment in both their contents and presentation style.
Debate on television news programs losing their professional quality and rolling down into the sphere of popular entertainment events dates back to the late 1980s, when the term ‘infotainment’ was first coined reflecting the genre mix of information and entertainment in news and programs on current affairs. The word turned out to be so catchy and appropriate for what was happening in the contemporary media, that by 1992 it had already been included into Roget’s Thesaurus (Thussu 7).
Consequently, infotainment entered still more dictionaries and is now defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “broadcast material which is intended both to entertain and to inform”, and in Key Concepts in Political Communication as “the combination of the words information and entertainment, suggesting a practice of blending together of their presentation within the broadcasting of news and current affairs” (as cited in Thussu 8).
Therefore, infotainment reflects a trend in contemporary mass media to place more importance on the presentation form rather than content of their news product.
As such, the tendency towards infotainment is not totally new. Providing an in-depth excursion in the historical development of the press, Harrison remarks that although criticism of the popular mass media tendency to entertain rather than educate has risen relatively recently, ‘commercialization of news’ was already observed as early as in the eighteenth century (55).
The trend to make news more thrilling for the general public by introducing exciting stories led to the situation that “then, as now, blood and sex reigned supreme in the pages of the popular press” (Cranfield, as cited in Harrison 55). As the costs of publishing soared, press agencies had to compete fiercely for the reading audiences.
Political news was moved aside and reduced to very small items that were reported in a way attractive to popular interest. Aiming at large circulations, reporters developed the style of their story presentation to increasingly dramatic and catchy, with headlines enlarged and more attention given to interviews, sports, and descriptions of personalities. Thus developed the ‘new journalism’ style (Harrison 56–57).
How does this ‘new’ presentation style look today? On the one hand, the representatives of news to public are of major importance: those often are either expert ‘personality’ correspondents who possess enough charisma and acting skills to keep the attention of the audience in an entertaining way, or celebrity presenters who attract the public simply by being generally acknowledged celebrities.
On the other hand, not only the presenters but also the news studios have been fit to the demands of the entertainment principle: the wall screens have been added that allow reporters to operate videos in support of the news presented, so that the story can be told by walking from one side of the studio to the other.
This dramatization of news allows presenting events to the public as an exciting “walk into the story of the day” and thus attracting interest and retaining a larger audience (Harrison 168). The modern situation in the world of news programs has been brilliantly summed up by Daya Kishan Thussu, who accentuates that the source for modern concept of infotainment lies in the vision of American media companies:
“This news cannibalizes visual forms and styles borrowed from contemporary TV commercials and a MTV-style visual aesthetics, including fast-paced visual action, in a post-modern studio, computer-animated logos, eye-catching visuals and rhetorical headlines from an, often glamorous, anchor person.
Such news, particularly on the rolling 24/7 channels, appears to be the answer to attracting the ‘me’ generation of media users, prone to channel hopping and zapping as well as more inclined towards on-line and mobile news. This style of presentation, with its origins in the ratings-driven commercial television news culture of the US, is becoming increasingly global, as news channels attempt to reach more viewers and keep their target audiences from switching over.“ (8)
In addition to the aforementioned external factors of news ‘entertainisation’, one can observe the entertaining principles in the programs content as well. As Hamilton comments on the situation which was observed already in the early 1990s, “the popularity of entertainment programming also affected the news product” as more attention was placed on soft news, crimes, scandals, and celebrity stories that would secure the channels’ popularity among the viewers (175).
Reflecting Thussu’s comment on infotainment as oriented at “media users, prone to channel hopping and zapping”, news programs involve short, disconnected episodes on a whole variety of topics that are changing each other fast enough not to bore the audience (8).
The information is presented in a ragged scrappy style that corresponds to the general trend in modern perception. Nowadays people are getting so much information from the environment that in order to protect themselves from this information tsunami, they try to scan and skim the information resources to get only the key facts and not the details.
In its turn, such ‘express’ approach to presenting and receiving news bears the jeopardy of superficiality and shallowness of perceiving the world. The over-informed audiences are satiated with information and do not have the time or wish for serious consideration of whatever they are informed of. Struggling to catch their ever-eluding attention, TV channels represent information in such amounts and manner that can be compared to the motley kaleidoscope of a carnival.
Instead of instigating the audiences to ponder over the information they receive, modern news programs rather present “electronic media spectacles where narration or the simple accumulation of anecdotes prevails over reasoned solutions to the problems” (Garcia Canclini, as cited in Thussu 9). Critical assessment and reflection on the presented content is hampered by both the presentation style and pace.
The superficiality of modern news programs has been widely criticized as degrading. Researching human communication in the light of the means involved in it, Neil Postman refers to the idea formulated by Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message” (as cited in Erion 193).
Based on this idea, Postman develops a theory that it is impossible to preserve the serious and fundamental character of information presented by means of modern television. By its nature, television simply has to be entertaining since it involves exciting and moving imagery that distracts the audiences from thoughtful contemplation of the information they obtain: “On television thoughtful conversation about serious issues are reserved only for the lowest-rated niche programs”.
Even when interlocutors meet in a discussion format, the discussion as such does not occur, since the show happens according to an a priori devised scenario which does not consider any personal input, reaction, or contribution from the participants. The moderator of the discussion program keeps an eye on the conversation to go exactly the way it has been pre-planned, and restrains any digression, which makes the logical flow of discussion impossible.
As Postman observes, the typical roundtables which seem to follow the purpose of discussing and finding a solution to an issue, actually have “no arguments or counterarguments, no scrutiny of assumptions, no explanations, no elaborations, no definitions” (as cited in Erion 198). Otherwise, a thoughtful conversation would not be entertaining; it would simply bore the audience and make them switch over to a more exciting program.
In order to break away from the sticky web of entertainment that impoverishes human intelligence originally designed to analyze and seek answers to problems, it is essential to understand what lies in the basis of the infotainment trend.
Tracing the possible results of such media policy, Alex S. Jones anxiously predicts that if the nation’s press is “mostly tabloid, advocacy, or entertainment” primarily aiming at sole “profit rather than the public good combined with profit”, there is little hope for the nation preserving its rational core (51).
The ultimate aim of mass media is also in the center of concern of modern journalists who assemble to discuss the way out of the situation during the Sixth Forum of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Among them, a Los Angeles correspondent for CBS News, Bill Whittaker, expressed concern not just for the entertainment trend in the news, but in the fact that “bottom line is everything”:
“… one of the bad things that 60 Minutes did was that it made money, and that for the first time, news producers and news divisions came to see that news could make a profit. Before then it wasn’t expected to. Those pressures were taken off of news. It was supposed to be a loss leader and you did it because it was a good thing to do and your anchor was your prestige person up in front. Now all news operations and broadcasts are expected to make money.” (as cited in Mueller n.p.)
The solution of the problem is seen by journalists not in rejecting the entertaining nature of news, but in choosing the right items to cover and transforming the news from mere brief nomination of superficial pseudo-entertaining facts to an exciting coverage that would provoke thinking audiences to assess and analyze the information they get (Mueller n.p.).
In this sense, the comedy shows that parody ‘real’ news turn out to be much more successful in presenting the public with a more realistic picture of the world than the ‘real’ news programs (J. Jones 219).
Modern news industry seems to be experiencing a crisis since the trend towards infotainment that bases on desire for profit makes news degrade to superficial statement of irrelevant facts. In order to protect their audience from intellectual degrading, mass media need to rethink the coverage items and volume and thus spur the audience to think, assess, analyze, and act.
Erion, Gerald J. “Amusing Ourselves to Death with Television News: Jon Stewart, Neil Postman, and the Huxleyan Warning.” Common Culture: Reading and Writing About American Popular Culture. 6th ed. Eds. Michael Petracca and Madeleine Sorapure. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice, 2009. 191–200. Print.
Hamilton, James T. All the News that’s Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into News. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. Print.
Harrisson, Jackie. News. Oxon: Routlege, 2006. Print.
Jones, Alex S. Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Jones, Jeffrey P. “’Fake’ News versus ‘Real News as Sources of Political Information: The Daily Show and Postmodern Political Reality”. Common Culture: Reading and Writing About American Popular Culture. 6th ed. Eds. Michael Petracca and Madeleine Sorapure. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice, 2009. 201–222. Print.
Mueller, Bret. “Has News Been Abdicated for Entertainment?” Sixth Forum of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, Session 1. Los Angeles, CA: University of Southern California, 4 March 1998. Web. 20 Feb. 2010.
Thussu, Daya Kishan. News as Entertainment: The Rise of Global Infotainment. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2007. Print.