What differentiates journalism from infotainment?

Communication and media industries have steadily prospered and disseminated news in non-traditional journalism ways to target audiences that appeal to the ever-changing society. Due to the influx of careers in communication and media, this essay will delve into traditional, ‘hard news’ journalism and show how, although it shares similarities to infotainment programs, it differs in its approach and format. To allow for a probing comparison, inclusion of what comprises journalism will be discussed, followed by an examination of its contrasting form, infotainment programs.

A standard definition for journalism is difficult to illustrate. However, one explanation is it is the process of gathering, assessing, creating and presenting of news and information (American Press Institute, 2015). Journalists play their social, ethical and moral role in providing newsworthy stories to serve at the public’s interest (Beaujon, 2013). Humans are curious creatures that instinctively crave news, and journalism is the platform that feeds our urge to know. Currently, journalism is being re-shaped and modified at an exponential speed to reflect the shifting society’s current needs and wants. Its expansive field segmentation into areas such as photojournalism, investigative journalism and feature writing is as Lamble describes journalisms current trends as ‘mirroring society’ (Lamble, 2011 p.XIX).

Journalism is distinguished from other media and communication activities by recognisable characteristics, values and practices (American Press Institute, 2015) and its clear barrier of audience and journalist. Although in recent times, this gap is closing due to ‘citizen journalism’, which can be biased. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth (Pew Research Centre, 2015), as their main intention is to provide readers with the accuracy necessary for a functional society (University of North Carolina, 2015). Journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account and in doing so, be as transparent as possible in simply providing the basis of facts, thereby allowing the readers to make their own opinion. Their loyalty lies first and foremost in its allegiance to its citizens, regardless of what organisation they are employed to. A commitment to citizens proves their organisation’s credibility as well as their own. Journalists are probing in their approach in their neutrality of balancing a variety of source opinion, disregarding their own stance in a story, depending on the style of publication. As the Pew Research Centre claims, ‘journalism is a form of cartography: it creates a map for citizens to navigate society’. Journalists must be proportionate in their presentation of news, in publishing everything newsworthy (Pew Research Centre, 2015).

Soft news or ‘infotainment,’ has been dominating the news landscape, despite criticism from traditional journalists, as its focus lies on entertainment (O’Conner, 2009). News programs have hit rock bottom and in their competitive ethos and pursuit of ratings (McInerny), have developed into infotainments by incorporating human interest and emotionally tinged stories presented in an informal or casual way to resonate with viewers. Long gone are the days of straight news with actual substance (Morell, 2007), as audiences no longer find traditional journalism as important and sustaining. Therefore, there is higher demand for infotainment programs (Dr Stockwell, 2014).

Infotainment has a wide scope and its sub-genres include, lifestyle shows, reality TV, tabloid, talk shows, ‘mocumentaries’, documentary soaps and game shows. Each sub-genre includes the fundamentals of providing the medium of television with information and entertainment, although the two are usually unbalanced in order to meet audience demand. The Project, E News and popular breakfast show, Sunrise, are all examples of soft/tabloid news. Their presentation differs from ABC News and even commercial air 60 Minutes and A Current Affair in their format, presentation and selective choice of news (Dr Stockwell, 2014). Soft news is highly specialised and simplified in being more episodic rather than thematic, focussing on easily identifiable groups and individuals. This allows viewers to get just enough information to be able to briefly understand a situation and develop their own opinion (O’Conner, 2009).

Sunrise is a particularly good example of a successful infotainment program, as it is presented in a certain way that engages a close and powerful audience connection. It has an intense focus on ‘reciprocal’ journalism; because of the way it understands its audience and incorporates them in viewer interactivity through feedback, prizes and human-interest stories. Sunrise leading anchor, David Koch, said, “You develop a product for a market, and I think that’s the big thing for us, and we take notice of our customers, and we do it in a way that they want…” (Harrington, 2009 p.150)

The examples provided of soft news all share a similar format in treating news as a commodity, thus not adequately informing matters of public importance in their intensely audience-centric approach (Harrington, 2009). Contrasting to straight journalism, their trivial style approach to the news also lies in their use of personality-centred newsreaders, adding to the casualness and engagement of viewers (O’Conner, 2009). Through encompassing a variety of topics and issues as well as popular opinion polls, questions, surveys and interviews, it increases audience participation. Talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show and Dr Phil also share a comparable format, but go into greater depth on a particular issue with more points of view than the stock standard news program. (Dr Stockwell, 2014).

Lifestyle shows such as Better Homes and Gardens, Top Gear and The Cook and the Chef, although not delivering the standard information, are highly informative in their specialised field. Lifestyle programs, known as the ‘news you can use’, offer more technical advice and ethical values like the whole ‘do-it- yourself’ and ‘cooking is quick and easy’ notion. These shows provide information that a viewer can use, as opposed to awareness on news issues (Dr Stockwell, 2014).

Reality TV uses their entertainment format and claim to show real life, competing with the abstracted representations of news. It provides a more personal, human-interest account of an experience that straight journalism does not deliver in their readings. Programs such as Border Security and Bondi Rescue educate the audience about dangers and hazards, as well as gain a better understanding to the protection methods and the apparatus involved when being under observation. Similarly to documentary soaps, like Judge Judy and The People’s Court, which teaches viewers of the involvement of a fully-fledged court case and its legal processes. However, some reality TV can distort the truth due to the expansive editing process, misleading and deceiving viewers (Dr Stockwell, 2014).

As infotainment programs dominate Western television and are a reflection of what the public want, addressing its differences to journalism is key to educating its audience. These programs provide information un-related to public affairs or policy and are more sensational and celebrity oriented (Nisbet, 2001). Journalism typically has a central role in ensuring accountability in a democracy (Dr Stockwell, 2014) by revealing widespread information from a political, social, cultural, legal and historic context (Lamble, 2011, p.27), whereas infotainment programs lack in their proportionality. Disproportional news coverage does inform the public of some news, but not things of high importance. Even recently, the enthralment of sensationalism in capitalising public figures and portraying the celebrity culture is evident when the death of Hollywood actor Robin Williams was featured more often than the Ukrainian versus Russia military and political war (infoplease, 2015). However, that is the key component of infotainment programs – entertainment. People prefer to watch shows that are entertaining in their approach as well as in their content.

Profitability and ratings are also of high importance to infotainment programs, by engaging in such unethical practices like ‘chequebook journalism’. Some infotainments acquire people on an exclusive basis by paying large amounts of money to an interviewee, altering the relationship between the subject and interviewer, when money and payment are involved (McInerny). Straight journalism’s main concern is to the public and to give an accurate representation disregarding any form of bias.

In exploring what journalism stands for and its core meaning, it is understood that infotainment programs should not be classified as journalism. Although some aspects cross over, infotainments stance will always remain to feed the public decontextualized information in the form of entertainment to gain higher ratings. Hard news journalism does not give into the superficiality and subjectivity that news infotainment prizes, but has in some commercial news programs and current affairs, adapted similar concepts. Infotainment does have its positives in offering something different to traditional news such as high audience engagement and meeting public wants in a more casual approach. Audience’s are no longer passive and want programs that communicate with them, closing the barrier between audience and journalist.

 

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