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The East: Analysis From Washington: News Hard And Soft

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 20 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Newspapers in a number of Western countries are moving in a very different direction than the one Western governments are encouraging newspapers in former communist countries to follow.

Compared to only a decade ago, many newspapers in Western countries are carrying fewer "hard" news stories in which the writer attempts to answer the traditional journalistic questions of who, what, where, when and how.

Instead, these papers are carrying ever more "soft" human interest stories and opinion pieces, or even "news" stories in which the journalist makes little effort to separate fact and opinion.

But what is especially striking is that this trend is taking place precisely at a time when many Western governments are urging editors in the post-communist countries to print more hard news, to be less personal, and to clearly separate reporting and opinion.

The reasons for this trend in Western journalism and for Western efforts to get post-communist journalists to behave differently are both obvious and justified -- even if the conflict between the two reduces the influence of western journalists on their Eastern collegues.

Many newspapers in the West have changed in response to three developments.

First, the end of the Cold War has removed the threat that earlier led many people to turn to newspapers for the hard news that many newspapers are no longer carrying.

Second, more people are getting their news from television rather than newspapers. That trend has two effects: On the one hand, it means that television reporting is increasingly setting the agenda for newspapers.

And on the other, it means that those who do turn to the press are looking for something very different than the news they receive on TV.

And third, because Western newspapers must make a profit to stay in business, they increasingly must cater to an audience that has neither the interest nor the inclination to read through the kind of stories that filled the columns of most Western papers in the past.

But the reasons that Western governments are urging journalists and editors in the post-communist states to move in a very different direction are equally compelling precisely because the journalists in these countries begin from such a different starting point.

First, many of the editors and journalists in these countries are veterans of the communist period when as the joke had it "there was no truth ("pravda") in the news ("izvestiya") and no news in the truth.

Instead, the communist regimes viewed newspapers as a mobilizing tool, as a means to direct the efforts of the population toward party-desired ends rather than to inform anyone about what was actually going on.

Second, many writers in these states have never been encouraged to answer the traditional journalistic questions of who, what, when, where, and why or to distinguish between the facts and their own opinions.

As a result, most newspapers in these countries, even as the press has become freer, continue to feature stories that many Western readers would not recognize as journalism.

And third, because Western governments recognize that an informed citizenry is a necessary if not sufficient condition for a democratic society, they naturally see the development of a serious press as a logical extension of their efforts to help these countries transform themselves.

But the press in the post-communist countries faces many of the same existential and commercial realities that the press in the West does. Indeed, these pressures may be even greater there.

On the one hand, many people in these countries are interested only in their own immediate circumstances, precisely because of the difficulties they now face as a result of the economic and political transformations after communism.

And on the other, the press in these states now must earn its own way and do so without the well-developed commercial advertising sector that provides an important element of support for newspapers in the West.

As a result, many of these post-communist papers are following the Western model rather than Western advice, even though that pattern is certain to have some negative consequences for the evolution of their societies.