There’s little doubt that "soft" news—a category in which Patterson includes routine crime, accident, and disaster stories, along with celebrity stories and other fluff— has mushroomed. After analyzing more than 5,000 TV, newspaper, and newsmagazine stories since 1980, he finds that the soft stuff has grown from less than 35 percent to about 50 percent of the total today.
News executives are acting on the basis of marketing and ratings studies, Patterson acknowledges. But the studies focus on the short term, he argues. Over the long term, he suggests, audiences may find that news outlets stuffed with fluff are outlets they can do without.
Americans today "are ambivalent at best" about the news they are being given, says Patterson. In a national survey of 511 adults last October, 84 percent said they found the news "informative," but 50 percent considered it "superficial," and 52 percent "not enjoyable." Sixty-three percent claimed to prefer "news that sticks mainly to stories about major events and issues affecting the community and the country"—and most of these folks said they would like to see less of the soft stuff. Twenty-four percent of the respondents were soft-news fans. But they tended to think hard news was pretty good, too. And the remaining 13 percent liked hard and soft equally.
The people looking chiefly for hard news constitute the core audience for news, Patterson says. Forty percent of them regularly read a daily paper’s news pages, for example, compared with only 26 percent of the softnews types. And it’s those in the core audience who are most discontented today, Patterson points out. "They are also more likely...to say they are paying less attention to the news than in the past."
Ninety-three percent of the folks paying less attention complain that the news is too "negative" in tone. Patterson agrees. Since 1976, press coverage of the presidency and the federal agencies has grown steadily more critical. America needs a watchdog press, Patterson believes, but one that can distinguish between "real abuse" and trivial offenses. As Americans have become more turned off by politics and government, more and more of them—not surprisingly—have been turning off the news.
"In the long run," concludes Patterson, "the best way to build an audience for news is through balanced public-affairs reporting."