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  • Tue, 16, Jun, 2015 - 5:00:AM

Infotainment: The villain or the scapegoat?

Infotainment.

The baddie of the news media industry. The beginning of the end for quality journalism. We’ve heard it all before. We know all the stories. But is it really all that bad?

Infotainment, the rebellious child of ‘information’ and ‘entertainment’, has caused widespread concern and consternation among the traditional news media. Expanding choice is arguably central to the rise of infotainment. With the rise of new technologies and digital channels, audiences are increasingly spoilt for choice in deciding what types of media to consume from which sources. With so many options, news providers are feeling the pressure to produce content that is competitively appealing. Stories are increasingly selected for their entertainment value, bringing about a rise of sensationalism and celebrity, drama and crime, graphics, special effects and multimedia productions.  Stories are no longer the bland and tasteless ‘greens’ once force-fed to audiences over the 6 o’clock news.

News consumption spans all hours of the day across all imaginable media. While traditional channels still exist (television, radio, and newspapers), news media is diversifying in almost every way possible. Audiences can consume and produce news media simultaneously (Buzzfeed, for example). They can watch live TV updates, while reading the latest tweets and listening to public opinion on talkback radio. They can do all three online. They can be informed while simultaneously being entertained.

And it’s exciting. It’s liberating. It is empowering audiences to determine exactly when and where and what they are consuming. But is it necessarily a good thing?

Critics argue that infotainment represents a fall in quality journalism, the end of socially responsible news production. One might point to American news broadcasters for an example of where infotainment can go so drastically wrong.

American news channels are owned by a handful of extraordinarily powerful (and rich) conglomerates that are driven by the ‘economic imperative’. Their corporate interests, and by extension those of their advertisers, directly influence the selection of the stories that are covered and the angles from which these stories are told.

Biased commentary has been exposed in modern American news content, particularly in terms of political alignment. Modern media outlets can (and do) try to influence the public on politics; from the obvious who to vote for, to implicit framing around policy issues. While this is not necessarily a new thing - look to British newspapers for example, whose obvious political leanings have existed since their establishment in the 1800s - issues arise when these biases are masked or when falsehoods are presented as truth.

The Pipa Knowledge Networks Poll in 2003 reveals that Fox News audiences held markedly distorted views of the reality of the situation in Iraq. A significant 67% of Fox viewers, compared to 16% of Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio audiences, believed the United States had found links between Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda (an assumption proven to be incorrect).

Such findings revealed that the more likely a person was to watch Fox news, the more likely they were to hold inaccurate beliefs about the political situation between Iraq and America.

These assumptions stem from the news production process, and the way in which this process is shaped and determined by powerful private bodies, whose corporate functions result in news content that is often anything but ‘fair and balanced’.

The New Zealand media has generally attempted to maintain its neutrality, though corporate ownership is becoming increasingly concentrated, and advertisers more scarce and thus arguably more powerful. There are a number of risks.

There is a potential fall in source quality, for example. Digital immediacy, particularly that required by Twitter, places pressure on news producers to ‘get the story out first’. This augments the risk of news providers relying on unreliable sources, or refusing to wait for multiple source confirmation. RadioLIVE Political Editor Jessica Williams notes how, “Twitter makes it really easy to get tied up in the ‘who’s first’ thing,” explaining, “I think most journalists will be able to name situations where they’ve leapt in to tweet something and then realised not necessarily that they’ve gotten it wrong but that they haven’t got it as right as they could have.”

Another issue comes in the form of the ‘signal-to-noise’ ratio, that being the amount of useful information relative to the sheer amount of unnecessary content. “Some people’s blogs and thoughts are useful and helpful; 90% of what’s out there is not helpful and having to wade through the 90% to get to the 10% is quite tricky,” Williams adds.

What is particularly worrying is whether or not audiences are getting the information they need to fully participate in society, especially in terms of democracy. Are we getting the ‘greens’ we need to be aware of and participate in government activity? Do we know what’s going on? And of what we do know, is this knowledge balanced, accurate, and sufficient?

On the other hand, what is ‘sufficient’? Can we really use such a subjective measure as a primary argument against infotainment? If we consider the empowering nature of infotainment - the control audiences have in determining what content is produced, when and where - theoretically all content will be inherently sufficient. Audience demand what they believe is needed and therefore sufficient. So by the logic of the marketplace and the economic imperative, news productions will be implicitly adequate in terms of meeting audience information needs.

Ultimately, in the modern media landscape, demand is what it all comes down to. It doesn’t matter what journalists think; it is whether or not audiences believe that hard news is needed. In simple terms, whether or not they demand it will determine whether it is provided.

Audience demand (or lack thereof) was argued to be the cause of Campbell Live’s demise. According to the Dominion Post, MediaWorks saw the review as being necessary “to improve commercial performance of the 7pm TV3 time-slot in a changing television market”. Demand for harder news content simply wasn’t sufficient for meeting the company’s economic imperative, Mediaworks argued. And the trending shift towards lighter, infotainment content can be seen in its being replaced by reality television programme Come Dine With Me.

If harder news styles are to persist in the face of infotainment, we as audience members need to demand their continued production. And while we may not prioritise shows like Campbell Live (at least in prime time viewing hours), we should recognise that there are other means, other mediums through which we can ask for such materials. Williams predicts that harder news content will shift online and will increasingly rely on crowd funding, suggesting, “if [media consumers] want to pay for that kind of journalism to exist on the Internet, then they’ll pay for it and it will happen.”

While it is impossible to know where harder news stories are heading, it is very unlikely that they will disappear completely. Demand may be falling and the call for infotainment rising, but this does not mean that the demand for ‘high fibre’ content does not still exist. One need only look at the public outcry over Campbell Live’s canning for evidence of this.

Producers need also recognise that the economic imperative is not all-controlling. Demand is shaped by a continuous cycle of production and consumption, and news producers have considerable influence over shaping demand trends. Journalists will need to change to recognise that consumers want more entertainment. However, this does not mean they have to drop ‘high-fibre’ ‘unsexy’ content altogether.

Look at the current budget deficit, for example. As Williams puts it, “those three words are, for most mainstream audiences, journalistic suicide”. No one wants to talk numbers. Numbers are boring and confusing and feel irrelevant is comparison with other juicier, political content. But those numbers are actually extremely important in terms of the national economic situation. Back-to-back deficits mean ongoing borrowing and ongoing borrowing sees a nation fall further and further into debt.

Audiences need to know about this, but they’re not going to unless producers learn how to present this ‘high fibre’ news in an entertaining, accessible format – an infotainment format. Many may argue that this is ‘dumbing down’. The harder stuff is left out and simplified so that audiences will actually read or watch the piece. However, as Williams illustrates, “maybe it’s dumbing down, but maybe it’s saying this is relevant and how am I going to make it relevant to an audience that maybe isn’t [currently interested], or just doesn’t know they should care about it?”

Ultimately we need to recognise that though demand is changing, ‘high fibre’ news still has its place. This will be a relief to those critics who see infotainment as the villain of the media industry. They should find reassurance in knowing that those noble, ‘hard news’ journalist-knights will continue to ride through the darkness that is softer, commercially driven infotainment. This will be a challenge to journalists who will need to figure out where hard news content’s place will be. What medium should be used? How will stories be told? How can ‘unsexy’ information be made fun and entertaining yet continue to be educational and sufficient enough to enable audiences’ full participation in society and politics?

And this will be a responsibility that audiences must also take on. We need to realise the power we have been granted through the rise of digital technologies and the increasing influence of the commercial imperative. We need to recognise that we have the ability to choose what is presented to us, when and where and how we hear about what’s going on in our world. If hard-news styles are to continue then we must demand it. We must eat our greens of our own accord if news producers are to continue to provide them. And I can’t be alone in liking cucumber, broccoli et al.

It is impossible to predict where the rise of infotainment will go. But we can be certain it is going somewhere new. The ‘new’ news landscape may end up existing mainly online. It may take the new form of an infotainment hybrid. The new system might even be crowd-funded. We can choose to let this frighten us, or we can choose to embrace this change and allow ourselves to be excited by the possibilities of what’s to come.

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Comments ( 1 )

  • Rose's picture

    Rose - Wed, 2015-06-17 19:38

    Feels a bit like 'a bob each way' to this hard-news journalistic knight! I don't see it as 'darkness' that must be ridden through. It feels more like slush, and it clings!! To me, the word infotainment would have to rank with sauspavlova. Or Campcomedine. But I suspect, 'given economic imperatives' that even the darkest news will be accompanied by flashing smiles. And every TV twosome will consist of yet another bigot with a bimbo to flutter at his platitudes. Oh Renee, I hope I'm wrong!
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