Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/6/2011 (2207 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
6Communications experts have coined a bunch of terms to describe this phenomenon, including "infotainment," "newzak," "tabloidization" and "politainment." Critics say information is obscured when news is fun. "Infotainment" allegedly promotes style over substance. By highlighting the trivial, the superficial and the sensational at the expense of the in-depth and the insightful, the news media are giving us brain candy. We are, in the words of Neil Postman, "amusing ourselves to death."
I want to challenge the myth that so-called "real" news is democracy's oxygen while "infotainment" has the deadly effect of carbon monoxide.
There is no doubt that political knowledge is key to a healthy democracy. Citizens need information about politics and government, not least to make informed choices at election time. And certainly the news is designed to entertain; after all, it needs to grab the attention of easily distracted audiences.
My problem is with the assumption that political news is either entertaining or informative. Why must they be mutually exclusive? Indeed, amusement may provide the opportunity for erudition.
As an example, let's consider the story about the "NDP Vegas girl" from the recent federal election. The "Vegas girl" is Ruth Ellen Brosseau, a young single mom from Ottawa who rode the orange wave to victory even though she never campaigned in the Quebec riding she now represents. This was true of many candidates, but Brosseau's story had legs because she was holidaying in Las Vegas during the campaign. By the time Brosseau was elected the press corps was salivating. She was the flavour of the moment.
Now, the critic would say that this story epitomizes everything that is wrong with "infotainment." By focusing negative attention on one sensational example, the story obscured the bigger picture and failed to highlight important facts about Canada's electoral system.
I disagree. Indeed, I plan to use the "Vegas Girl" story in my Canadian politics course this fall precisely because it distilled a crucial point about electoral democracy into a compelling example.
Ruth Ellen Brosseau is the quintessential standard-bearer, the candidate who puts her name on the ballot but knows she doesn't stand a chance of winning. That she got lucky is a quirk of Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system, one which few people notice or care about. But because of the "Vegas girl" story, many Canadians did pay attention.
Indeed, the story prompted a rather virulent public reaction, expressed in letters to the editor and via discussion on social media sites such as Facebook.
A debate raged about how fair or unfair it was that Brosseau was elected, despite never setting foot in the riding during the campaign. Clearly Canadians were thinking about important normative issues: what is a just outcome? What is good representation? What sorts of characteristics and qualities do we want to see in our political representatives?
Moreover, citizens did not read this story uncritically. In fact, they challenged it. Some people felt Brosseau was singled out because, as a young, female, minimum-wage-earning single mother, she defies the prototype of the elected politician. Others said the press was unduly targeting NDP standard-bearers in Quebec. News media responded with the example of an absentee Conservative candidate destined to win a ridiculously safe seat in Alberta.
In short, the story got people thinking and talking. Isn't that what we want in a democracy?
Political news is most likely to provoke, resonate and inform when it is entertaining. Let's face it: many aspects of politics are profoundly boring. So why should we pay attention to news accounts of electoral rules, political institutions and arcane details of policy implementation?
It's the job of the news media to show us why we should pay attention, and more importantly, why we should care. News items are called stories for good reason. We get the moral or the lesson or the big point because the story is told in a way that makes politics real and meaningful. This is precisely why "infotainment" is good for democracy.
The U2011 Understanding Manitoba's Election Series of events sponsored by the University of Manitoba continues on Tuesday, June 14th at the Winnipeg Free Press Café with Dr. Linda Trimble of the University of Alberta, Dr. Shannon Sampert of the University of Winnipeg, and Paul Samyn of the Winnipeg Free Press busting myths about the media and elections. For more information see
Linda Trimble is a professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Alberta. She is co-editor, with Shannon Sampert, of Mediating Canadian Politics.