Monday, December 19, 2011

Entertainment as a Source of Political Information

It's easy now to find studies that examine the blurring of politics and entertainment -- and the consequences on political participation and knowledge.  Here's one I like from the recent issue of Parliamentary Affairs that finds that entertainment programming not only motivates and informs young citizens but that this effect in indirect, having to do with perceptions of "authenticity" of the source. 

Interesting stuff.  Oh, I also like the study because it cites me.  Yeah, I'm shameless.

This study falls in that group of findings in which young people operate through "multiple norms of citizenship" (to quote Dalton), and reaching them simply through news is unlikely to be as successful as in previous generations.  As the study above notes:

Young people like to see themselves as media savvy and discriminating cultural consumers. They are wary of anything that they deem to be fake or inauthentic or patronising. However, one of our respondents voiced the thought that the presentation of news could benefit from lessons learnt from entertainment culture: ‘I don’t enjoy watching the news because it’s just so depressing, but if politics was thrown into something like games ... then I would know more about it that way’
The journalism side of me, of course, cringes.  The mass comm scholar side of me, unfortunately, nods in agreement.  To summarize, Mary Poppins had it right all along, that "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."  In this case, the news and politics and public affairs, that's the medicine.  The blurring of news and entertainment, that's the sugar.

The danger is our recipe being heavy in sugar and light in the stuff that's good for you.  In the past I've called this my empty calorie hypothesis -- that people are tempted to fill up on soda and soft drinks and fast food.  Empty calories (entertainment forms of news).  They feel full, so they're less likely to consume the stuff (fruits, veggies, real news) that's good for them. 

The power of choice, with an explosion of digital channels and web sites and a million other ways to entertain ourselves to death, has led to a lot of people finding it easier and easier to flee the news -- or to insist the news be more like the stuff they find entertaining in the first place.  That leave us with a shrinking news audience, and with a soft audience that expects news to be, above all else, entertaining.


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