March 6, 1998

Changing Definitions of News

Is there really a trend toward entertainment as news? If there is, what form does it take?

We decided to find out by conducting a two-part content study of the so-called traditional mainstream national news media that examined what topics it covered and what was the emphasis of those stories.

One part of the study compared coverage in newspapers, nightly news and news magazines over a 20 year span. The second part looked at a larger universe of news media, including all the prime time network news magazines, over a seven week period in 1997 to identify what audiences are getting today. In all, the study, conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Medill News Service Washington Bureau, examined 6,020 stories in 16 news outlets ranging over a span of 20 years.

Overall Findings

  • There has been a shift toward lifestyle, celebrity, entertainment and celebrity crime/scandal in the news and away from government and foreign affairs. But infotainment still comes nowhere near dominating the traditional news package.

  • There is an even more pervasive shift toward featurized and people-oriented approach to the news, away from traditional straight news accounts. This tends to make the news more thematic and make the journalist more a story teller and mediator than a reporter.
  • The news media are dividing into market-based niches, with a result that a citizen's perception of society can vary greatly depending on the source of news. Prime time network news magazines, which have replaced documentaries on network television, have all but abandoned covering traditional topics such as government, social welfare, education and economics in favor of lifestyle and news-you-can-use. News magazines which once concentrated heavily on coverage of ideas have moved heavily toward celebrity. Newspapers continue to cover government, foreign policy and domestic policy as a staple. The network news has become a hybrid of all the others.

Moreover, if one expands the definition of news media to include the universe of everything on television or the news rack, celebrity, entertainment and scandal have become a much larger percentage of what audiences get. Consider the proliferation of such programs as Entertainment Tonight, Extra, Access Hollywood or the pseudo news programs like Inside Edition or Hard Copy, as well as the expanding universe of prime time network news magazines that have replaced documentaries on network television.

While content studies have their limits, and the question of what is entertainment and what is news is open to interpretation, the data clearly indicates that there have been major shifts in how the news media define the news.

We are not attempting to make definitive judgments about whether these trends are necessarily positive or negative. In many cases, there are sound reasons for these shifts. The news media are clearly now covering more of the society, moving away from institutional coverage of buildings and trying to make the news more relevant to audiences. With the end of the Cold War and other social and economic changes, the relevance of many traditional stories change, naturally moving the press in other directions. Some of the changes occur more in some media than others; as audiences fragment, different news outlets find different niches. As a basis for beginning a discussion, this study tries to quantify just what changes occurred in the various news media categories of newspapers, weekly news magazines, and television network news.