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Book review: The rise of Infotainment

April 15, 2011

If you absolutely adore flipping through your morning newspaper with a cup of coffee in your hands, then don’t read Felice Froio’s book, L’Informazione Spettacolo: Giornali e Giornalisti Oggi. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very entertaining and an interesting piece of writing. However, if you usually read news articles without questioning what’s behind every word, then you might be shocked. After reading this book, you will approach newspapers with a totally different attitude. And, your morning paper, that faithful friend waiting for you close to your steaming cup of coffee, will turn into a fierce enemy.

Froio’s essay on the rise of infotainment and low quality journalism in Italy is a sharp, at times sarcastic, analysis of how the press is losing track of its principles and is falling victim of the spiral of entertainment and the sin of subjection to political and corporate interests. Froio, who has worked as a reporter for Italy’s three major newspapers La Stampa, La Repubblica and Il Corriere della Sera, wrote this book at the beginning of the 21st century, in 2000. The shocking news is that, today, all his critiques are still relevant and appropriate to the contemporary state of the Italian press. L’Informazione Spettacolo could well be a book written in 2010. The only difference would be more up-do-date examples. In case you want to modernize this ten-year-old essay, just open a newspaper and pick the first article you find.

Maybe Froio knew this as he sat in front of his computer to type up the results of years of research and experience, but I find it incredible – and worrying – that nothing has changed. Newspapers today are still full of brief, uninformative interviews published in the style of television interviews. They are full of articles dealing with soubrettes and TV stars that cannot be included in what is considered “in the public interest.”  Newspapers are still subject to the control industrial companies and politicians wield in the newsrooms. And, finally, journalists still use deceiving and often fake quotations and an auto-referential language that the majority of readers fails to understand. In 250 pages, Froio gives a valuable, yet disturbing account that should be used to renovate and reinvent the Italian printed press.

Froio’s research approach is very concrete and down to earth. He collects dozens of interviews with influential newspaper directors, journalists, university professors and analysts, and most of the times uses long, direct quotes to convey their answers. In this way, the readers know that what they are reading is not Froio’s interpretation. Thoughts cannot be distorted and words cannot be used to prove the author’s point in a deceiving way. This “direct quote” approach is also interesting because it allowed Froio to imprint the impressions of leading journalists at the time the book was written, thus making L’Informazione Spettacolo a valuable, almost historical work of research and analysis.

However, some of Froio’s interviews almost seem to appear ironic with the wisdom of hindsight. Maurizio Belpietro, for example, then director of Il Giornale, today’s director of Libero, profusely talks about some of the worst vices of the Italian journalism. He strongly criticizes “the dreadful language poverty” of the press, “the pages dedicated to political gossips,” the fact that newspapers are targeted to a restricted number of well-informed readers, because the majority of the articles “do not interest common people.”[1] Belpietro always talks in the first person plural and he admits he’s the first one to be self-critical.[2] However, what has changed since then? Did Belpietro do anything to improve his work or defeat that low-quality journalism that he critiqued so strongly?[3]

It doesn’t seem so. When reading his interview on Froio’s book, one immediately remembers that the Italian Supreme Court (Corte di Cassazione) convicted Belpietro for defamation in April 2010. In November 2004, in fact, when he was still director of Il Giornale, Belpietro published Raffaele Iannuzzi’s article accusing magistrates Giancarlo Caselli and Guido Lo Forte of “making war” against the Carabinieri on a mafia case in Sicily when it was not so.[4] The whole accusation turned out to be false and defamatory toward the two magistrates. A cry seems to rise from Froio’s pages: what happened to Belpietro self-criticism and good intentions?

The same is true for Giuliano Ferrara, founder of the right-wing daily Il Foglio. In the book, Froio reports what the journalist says about his own newspaper. “It’s a miracle that thousands of people are willing to pay 1,500 lire [roughly €75 cents] for the totally naked and absolutely non-competitive type of information we produce,” Ferrara says. Being the director and founder of Il Foglio, he has the power to change his newspaper and to improve it. However, in his words, as in all those of other interviewed journalists and directors, a sort of resignation transpires – as if Ferrara, Belpietro and all the others cannot choose for themselves and improve the low-quality journalism that they themselves produce.

In L’Informazione Spettacolo, Froio also analyzes the increasing prevalence of the print press to utilize television. In the last decades, in fact, newspaper content has been changing and adapting to the small screen by reusing news listened on TV, by publishing articles about TV stars, and by functioning as a sound box for every silly event occurring on television. The rise of infotainment is a result of this practice. In an interview with Mario Morcellini, President of the Communication Department at La Sapienza University of Rome, Froio tries to give a reason why this is happening in Italy, unlike the rest of the Western world. The basic anomaly is the role television has always played in Italian society.

As the FIEG report The Italian Press 2007-2009 shows in a table titled “The Pyramids of the Media,” 97.8% of sampled Italians claimed to have watched TV at least once during the previous week, in 2009. This percentage is extremely high compared to the number of people who claimed to have read a newspaper (54.8%).[5] Why is television so popular? Why don’t Italians read newspapers often? In Froio’s book, Morcellini explains that, in Italy, the “historical distribution of the big mass media occurred in a … reversed way compared to the linear paths of cultural industrialization.”[6]

This concept is easier than it seems. Morcellini explains that, in other Western countries, the expansion of literacy was followed by the spread of the press in the 19th century. Only after the spread of the press, did radio and cinema come, finally followed by television. In Italy, instead, literacy levels after the Second World War were still extremely low and dialects were used more than Italian. Therefore, it was this new medium, television, that spread literacy in the post-war period. This process forced the other media to “a status of submission,” as Morcellini defines it.[7] By adapting their content to television, newspapers have destroyed their social function and have become subservient to sensationalism. Information has thus become a “commodity,” Morcellini concludes.[8]

While reading L’Informazione Spettacolo one can feel Froio’s physical pain in describing the downfall of Italian journalism. Even more painful is to read this book ten years after and discover that nothing has changed. In the chapter “Politics is a show,” Froio talks about the so-called “minzolinismo,” a neologism meaning “a type of journalism, which is based on the informal gathering of politicians’ declarations and does not include any information-checking.”[9] The word derives from Augusto Minzolini, a former Panorama and La Stampa journalist who invented this low quality journalism that confuses readers and creates “non-news,” as Paolo Murialdi defined it.[10]

If Minzolini is such a bad journalist and his practice has become so famous as to create a negative neologism that is synonymous with low-quality journalism, then one would expect Minzolini to cease his activity. On the contrary, in 2009, he was appointed director of the TG1, the news broadcast on the first RAI channel.[11] In October 2010, the Agcom, the Italian Authority for media pluralism, cautioned Minzolini against unashamedly favoring Silvio Berlusconi’s government and his party, the People of Liberty.[12] Minzolini became famous for his TV op-ed distorting reality in favor of the government, which now controls the first RAI channel according to the lottizzazione (appointment) principle.

What’s the point of Froio’s book, then, if everything he criticized in his book is still occurring in Italy, ten years later? Good point. Nothing has changed. Newspaper content is still subject to television’s influence, and investigative journalism a long-lost memory of the past. However, in this desolate scenario, Froio’s book becomes even more important, because it is a living account of how journalism has arrived where it is now and of what it can do to reinvent itself. The problem is that those newspaper directors and journalists who deplored their own practice ten years ago are the ones who still direct and write on those same newspapers today. A generational turnover is the only solution one can think of.

If you want to purchase Felice Froio’s book, click here.


[1] Felice Froio, L’Informazione Spettacolo: Giornali e Giornalisti Oggi, (Roma: Editori Riuniti, 2000) 58-59.

[2] Froio 59.

[3] Froio 60.

[4] Il Sole 24 Ore, “Belpietro Condannato per Aver Diffamato Caselli,” 8 April 2010, http://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/SoleOnLine4/Italia/2010/04/belpietro-condanna-diffamazione-Castelli.shtml

[5] Federazione Italiana Editori Giornali, La Stampa in Italia 2007-2009, April 2010, (http://www.fieg.it/) 34.

[6] Froio 211.

[7] Froio 211-213.

[8] Froio 214.

[9] Il Corriere della Sera, “Chi è Augusto Minzolini,” 20 May 2009, http://www.corriere.it/politica/09_maggio_20/scheda_minzolini_4111639e-4559-11de-982b-00144f02aabc.shtml

[10] Froio 77.

[11] Il Corriere della Sera, “Nomine Rai, Minzolini Direttore del TG1,” 20 May 2009, http://www.corriere.it/politica/09_maggio_20/rai_nomine_centrosinistra_lascia_7dee7078-454e-11de-982b-00144f02aabc.shtml

[12] Alberto Custodero, “TG1 Troppo Filo Governativo,” La Repubblica, 22 Oct. 2010: 12.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Linnea permalink
    April 15, 2011 13:03

    That sounds like a really interesting book! If I knew Italian, I would definitely try to find the time to read it. In Sweden we have two or three major news papers that cover news very accurately and precisely. However, we also have twp major so called evening papers, and to be honest, they are more publicly pleasing with more pictures and less serious news. They cover the stories that can help them sell single issues and beat their competitors everyday while the more serious news papers rely on subscriptions. It is quite an interesting concept. However, it is obvious what paper you buy depending on what you want to read about. To get educated and actually take in information about what is going on in the world, the morning papers are the best, and to find out what the Swedish royal family and celebrities are up to in combination with the biggest news and updates on crimes that sell, the evening papers is your best friend.
    Love this article! You have great insight, I am a bit behind on the reading, but I will get caught up with all of your fantastic work here pretty soon!
    Linnea

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