Matthew A. Baum

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Soft News and Foreign Policy: How Expanding the Audience Changes the Policies


Since the 1980s, the mass media have changed the way they cover major political stories, like foreign policy crises, and, as a consequence, in what the public learns and believes about these events. More media outlets cover major political events than in the past, including the entertainment-oriented soft news media. When they do cover a political story, soft news shows do so differently than the traditional news media, focusing more on “human drama,” and especially the character and motivations of decision-makers, as well as individual stories of heroism or tragedy, and less on the political or strategic context, or substance, of policy debates. Consequently, many Americans who previously ignored politics now attend to some information about major political events, like wars, via the soft news media. Less politically engaged Americans who learn about major events from the soft news media are more suspicious of the motives of political leaders and less supportive of their policies than their non-soft-news-consuming, or more-politically-engaged counterparts.

Soft news, in turn, is gaining popularity around the world. Consequently, these changes have important implications for democratic politics both in the United States and abroad. Most importantly, a large number of relatively apolitical, and hence particularly persuadable, potential voters are now tuning in to politics via soft news outlets. This gives politicians an incentive to develop strategies for reaching out to soft news consumers. Such individuals care less about the nuances of policy and more about the personality of leaders and any sensational human drama that a policy, like a war, entails. Soft news consumers care less about geopolitics than about body bags. Politicians who want their votes are therefore likely to emphasize body bags rather than geopolitics. In short, the “new” media environment is changing both the style and substance of politics in democracies.


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