All of It Matters

On hard and soft news

When I was growing up, in the nineties, my father subscribed to a couple of local newspapers in Central Texas: the Seguin Gazette and the San Antonio Express-News. The A section articles on politics and business didn’t interest me much. But every Friday, I’d flip through the pages in search of something more important, and I’d find what I was looking for in a small box in the entertainment section: Billboard’s list of the week’s top singles and albums.

I never talked about what I read with my dad, who was absorbed in the front pages. The music charts, even though they were printed in the newspaper, clearly didn’t qualify as real news. “News” was serious. It was for grown-ups, made by men wearing suits and ties. It was boring. And mostly, it just didn’t feel like it was for someone like me.

Now, at thirty-six, I see that the Billboard charts nevertheless held vital information about my place in the world. Back then a very glossy kind of hip-hop and rap was rising, and Black voices were overtaking pop. Around 1997 and 1998, when I saw Puff Daddy and the Bad Boy Family doing victory laps on the charts, an integration of Black music into the mainstream that had started decades prior was reaching its zenith. To put it in journalistic terms: the Billboard charts were a business story and an arts story and a race story all at the same time.

For years now, I’ve been thinking about why poring over the entertainment section of the newspaper didn’t feel like “news” consumption. I’ve questioned the strange distinction journalists make between “hard” and “soft” news. Hard news is typically thought of in terms of important people, important issues, and important events. (With “important” being defined by those in power.) Soft news is everything else—and so by definition the unimportant, inessential stuff of daily life. In comparison with hard news, soft news has often been defined as more cultural, personality-driven, and opinionated. In 2000, Thomas Patterson, a professor of government and the press at the Harvard Kennedy School, made a forceful argument against soft news, writing that it is “weakening the foundation of democracy by diminishing the public’s information about public affairs and its interest in politics.”

The obvious problem with this take is that for most of the journalism industry’s history, the leaders and institutions that “hard” news most valued left people like me out. Until very recently, hard news was designed to be exclusively for and about a certain kind of man: white, straight, well-educated. Things are somewhat better now, thanks in large part to the journalists of color and women journalists who fought for equal opportunities to provide coverage. Since 2013, Black Lives Matter activists have made stories about police brutality impossible to ignore; the same has happened through the #MeToo movement for reporting on sexual abuse. Those efforts have forced a shift in not only who hard news is written for, but also what’s considered hard news in the first place.

Still, white heteronormative maleness is the foundational legacy of major news institutions, in the same way that the US Congress wasn’t founded with the idea that women or Black or queer people would one day serve in it. And the distinction between hard and soft news, informed by all those historical disparities, is embedded in the very structures of America’s newsrooms. Compared with hard news stories, so-called “soft” pieces tend to be authored by a greater diversity of writers and contain a greater diversity of subjects. In the former category we get dutiful reports on the dominant figures of Washington politics; in the latter, we find stories classified under “women’s issues” and hear queer voices speak with autonomy.

For most of the journalism industry’s history, the leaders and institutions that “hard” news most valued left people like me out.

The hard-vs.-soft framework not only perpetuates inequality in the industry, it produces journalism that isn’t as informative and edifying as it could be. People don’t, in reality, live within “hard” and “soft” categories. We don’t understand the world that way. Instead, it’s the connective tissue between hard and soft that helps us see the bigger picture. In 2016, Donald Trump rode to the White House on reality TV fame, taking many hard-news journalists by surprise. At the time, I was one of them. We failed to understand what soft-news journalists already knew: that Trump is a performance. And to fully understand the power of the Black Lives Matter and police-abolition movements, we must consider the ways that entertainment—Paw Patrol, cops—influences how Americans view the police.

Consider, too, how channeling hard news as “breaking news” affects the health of news consumers. In an effort to make hard news unmissable, journalists feed an unhealthy addiction to anxiety-inducing content. If all the news is breaking all the time, then we are broken, too. When our industry approaches the news this way, particularly with the stories we deem the “heaviest,” we may keep our audiences coming back, but we aren’t enriching their lives. What would a better approach look like?

Each week, my team on It’s Been a Minute, an NPR show, tries to take a holistic view of the news. We attempt to convince our listeners that all of it matters. All of it can be taken seriously and examined critically. Most of it is connected, in fact, in all the complex and unexpected ways that disparate lives are connected. A celebrity’s admission that they don’t take showers is a chance to talk about the racially coded history of soap and hygiene. The Fast and Furious film franchise is a way to talk about the changing nature of China’s soft power. By examining ratings for the Tokyo Olympics and Bennifer 2.0 we can have a critical conversation about the death of monoculture. I believe in making a show that takes Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl rendition of the national anthem as seriously as the infrastructure bill. Because neither matters more than the other.

Journalism should blur the lines between hard and soft, high and low, serious and trite—not reinforce those boundaries. I don’t know if my father would like every part of my radio show if he were alive today. But I do think that I would have persuaded him to read all of the paper, and to talk about it with me. We’d both enjoy that. 

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Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. He was one of the original cohosts of NPR’s Politics Podcast, which launched in 2015. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post and Politico magazine.