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Distraction or Engagement? Researcher On What Viewers Learn from The Daily Show

If you are not a regular viewer of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, you might be surprised by results from Pew’s latest news audience report. In the national survey, respondents were asked four questions tapping current affairs knowledge and the results were then compared by media viewership segments. According to Pew’s analysis, Daily Show and Colbert Report viewers were on average about as knowledgeable of current affairs as regular viewers/readers of news blogs, USA Today, Glenn Beck, and Sunday News programs. 

Among Daily Show and Colbert Report viewers, nearly 50% answered 3 or more of the questions correctly. Moreover, according to the Pew analysis, these scores were higher than those for regular viewers/readers of MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, Hardball, local newspapers, local TV news, the morning shows, and even network TV news. 

What’s going on here? Are Daily Show and Colbert Report viewers both watching these programs and also consuming other news, especially online? Or is it additionally possible that these programs are actually offering their viewers more public affairs-related content than even the network news programs? 

And what about other late night comedy programs such as the Tonight Show? Are viewers similarly engaged when these programs feature political figures and humor?

For answers, I turned to Lauren Feldman, my colleague in the School of Communication at American University.  Feldman is one of the leading scholars studying the nature and impacts of political entertainment and satire. Today is part 2 of a series of posts featuring an interview I did with Feldman last week. (See also part 1.)–Matthew Nisbet

Why do politicians and public figures go on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, or Saturday Night Live? How might an appearance influence their public evaluations?

Appearances on late-night comedy programs have become an essential part of campaign strategy and, increasingly, political strategy more generally. This is, in large part, due to the fragmentation, or breaking up, of the mass media audience. It is extremely easy for people to tune out news and politics, if they so desire, and opt for purely entertainment programming. Many politicians have accepted this reality of our current media environment, reaching out to apolitical audiences by appearing as interview guests on entertainment talk shows – including late-night comedy programs. While once the domain of candidates running for office, when President Obama appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in March 2009 to promote his economic recovery plan, he became the first sitting president ever to be interviewed on a comedy show.

In addition to providing politicians with access to audiences that they might not be able to reach otherwise, late-night comedy programs allow politicians to project their non-political persona, make themselves seem more human, and convey that they care about and are in touch with the average citizen.  In particular, appearances on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Saturday Night Live help politicians to assert their pop culture credibility and demonstrate that they have a sense of humor.

Research has found that political candidates who appear on comedy and other entertainment talk shows enjoy an increase in favorability, particularly among audience members who have less strongly formed opinions. There are risks to these appearances, however. Politicians can come off as pandering. President Obama has opened himself to criticism for appearing on late-night comedy programs – and most recently, daytime’s The View. These appearances were criticized as un-presidential, inappropriate, and evidence of misplaced priorities. However, what we see more and more is that politician interviews on comedy and other entertainment programs are, in fact, politically substantive and provide an important opportunity to reach out to niche audiences in our fragmented media environment.

Does the Daily Show and other late night comedy programs influence mainstream news coverage? If so, in what ways?

Yes, and there are several ways in which this is happening, all of which highlight the increasingly fluid line between news and entertainment. Perhaps most obviously, mainstream news outlets report on politicians’ appearances on late-night comedy programs, airing clips of and offering commentary about the interviews. This began in earnest during the 1992 presidential race, when late-night comedy programs and entertainment talk shows first played a central role in campaigning, and has only increased in recent election cycles. In some high profile instances, politicians have broken major news on late-night programs, virtually requiring mainstream outlets to cover them.

For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, and Fred Thompson all announced their intentions to run for office on late-night comedy programs. Recognizing the growing importance of late-night comedy to the political landscape, many traditional news programs now even include bits from comedy shows as regular features of their broadcasts – for example, on ABC’s This Week, the Sunday “Funnies” provides a round-up of the week’s best late-night political comedy.

Ultimately, The Daily Show,The Colbert Report, SNL, and other late-night comedy programs have become part of mainstream political discourse. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert satirize what mainstream news outlets are saying, and then the mainstream outlets, in turn, report on the comedians’ critiques. In some cases, mainstream news personalities have directly engaged with Stewart and Colbert, responding to their critiques by appearing on the program (think Bill O’Reilly on The Colbert Report and CNBC’s Jim Kramer on The Daily Show).

I published a study in 2007, which examined what mainstream journalists were saying about The Daily Show.  One of my key conclusions was that The Daily Show – with its incisive, straight-shooting critique of media and politics – was forcing some journalists to reconsider traditional journalistic norms like balance and detachment, which too often serve to obfuscate rather than reveal the truth. So, perhaps one of the most important ways that The Daily Show, in particular, is influencing mainstream news coverage is by exposing its limitations and encouraging journalists to break from conventional norms – or at least to think more expansively about what journalism should look like today.

Does the Daily Show have the power to challenge the frame by political leaders on an issue?  For example, during the Bush years, I found interesting how the Daily Show was often in front of mainstream news coverage in challenging the Administration’s claims about the Iraq War and about stem cell research.

The Daily Show does an exceptional job of holding politicians and the news media accountable. Because The Daily Show is not bound by the conventions of journalism – namely, the need to appear objective – it can say things that traditional journalists cannot or will not. As a result, The Daily Show is able to challenge elite frames and offer alternative framing of issues. As you pointed out, The Daily Show did this particularly effectively during the lead up to and early years of the Iraq War. Through its segments on “Mess O’Potamia,” for example, The Daily Show brought attention to the insurgency and civil war in Iraq before the mainstream news media did. The Daily Show was also one of the first outlets to report on the connection between Dick Cheney and Halliburton.

Some of the best moments on The Daily Show are when it uses news pastiche to expose hypocrisy and cut through spin – in other words, juxtaposing news footage of political and media elites saying one thing at one point in time and then contradicting themselves at a later date. One of the most popular examples of this (the clip has received over 4 million views on Comedy Central’s website) aired just after Sarah Palin was announced as the 2008 Republican Vice Presidential nominee and highlights the double standard of sexism as applied to Palin versus Hillary Clinton. 

Are audiences learning about politics when they watch these programs or are these programs, as some fear, replacing the use of more valuable sources of news and information?

During the 2004 election, the Pew Research Center reported that young people were relying on satirical comedy programs like SNL and The Daily Show and late-night talk shows like Leno and Letterman for information about the campaign. While this group was the most likely to say they learned from comedy, it was the least likely to say they learned from network news and newspapers. These trends fueled a media narrative that young people were deserting traditional news in favor of comedy. 

Well, it turns out that although at a macro-level, yes, young people as a demographic are consuming much less traditional news and more late-night comedy, it is not necessarily that the same individuals who are tuning out the news are those watching late-night. A 2006 study conducted by Danna Young and Russ Tisinger found that those young people who reported watching and learning the most from late-night comedy also reported the highest rates of exposure to more traditional forms of news. 

As a follow up to that study, I partnered with Danna Young to investigate whether exposure to political information in late-night comedy might actually lead people to pay more attention to traditional news. We were testing something called the “gateway hypothesis,” originally proposed by Harvard political scientist Matthew Baum.

This is the idea that entertainment programming that contains political content will motivate otherwise uninterested viewers to start paying attention to the news by making politics more salient (via its political interviews, jokes, etc.) and providing them with a cursory understanding of political issues.

Consistent with our hypothesis, we found that over the course of the 2004 primaries, the audiences of Leno and Letterman increased their attention to campaign news in traditional sources at a faster rate than non-viewers—suggesting that coverage of the election on Leno and Letterman fostered interest in conventional campaign news.

The audience for The DailyShow, on the other hand, maintained high levels of news attention regardless of that program’s election coverage. This is likely because, unlike Leno and Letterman, the content of The Daily Show is consistently and reliably political—not just during campaign events and elections, but all the time. These results confirm that late-night comedy audiences—of both TheDaily Show and Leno/Letterman varieties—are not tuning into these programs instead of traditional news.

I would also argue that traditional news is not necessarily more valuable as a source of political information than The Daily Show or Colbert Report.  Although it is unclear how much people learn about politics from The Daily Show and Colbert Report, any absence of learning is not due to a dearth of political substance – for example, a study by Julia Fox and colleagues found that The Daily Show was at least as substantive in its coverage of the 2004 election as the network evening news.

More likely, audiences are already knowledgeable about the news of the day when they tune into The Daily Show and Colbert Report. All in all, I would argue that The Daily Show and similar programs provide a useful complement to, rather than a replacement for, citizens’ traditional news diets.

It seems that the Daily Show, Colbert Report, and SNL have become an important part of our personal conversations about politics, at least among a younger generation of Americans.  If these programs are not only being watched but also frequently talked about at school, at the office, or online via Facebook and blogs, does this add to their impact?

Absolutely. Conversations about these shows – both online and offline – only serve to increase their profile and reinforce their impact. People don’t have to actually see the original broadcast of these programs in order to be influenced by them. Moreover, when relayed by a friend or colleague, along with a personal endorsement or commentary, this is apt to give more weight – or provide new context – to the show’s message.

Comedy Central apparently recognizes the importance of informal sharing of its shows’ content; its website facilitates online conversations about The Daily Show and The Colbert Report by making it easy for people to embed or link to their video clips on blogs, social media, etc.

–Interview with Lauren Feldman

Tomorrow: Are The Daily Show and Colbert Report the new places for science on TV?

See Also:

Is America a Joke? Researcher Examines Daily Show’s Impact on Political Culture


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