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Lessons for Science? AU Colleague Studies Impact of Late Night Comedy on Viewers’ Engagement with Politics

This past year, in the School of Communication here at American University, we were lucky to add to our faculty Lauren Feldman, a newly minted PhD from the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lauren (whose office is across the hall from mine) studies the impact of opinionated news shows, such as the O’Reilly Factor, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and the Daily Show on perceptions of political issues and candidates.

She recently appeared on CNN’s Wolf Blitzer to discuss the implications of a forthcoming study on the impacts of late night comedy on viewers’ interest in the presidential campaign (video.)

Her conclusions should sound familiar to readers who have read my articles or seen my talks about the importance of using late night comedy shows and entertainment media to broaden the audience for issues related to science, technology, and the environment. (A topic I will be revisiting in a number of upcoming presentations.)

From a news release that AU has put out on the study and Feldman’s research:

“We have this fragmented media audience today,” says School of Communication professor Lauren Feldman, who studies, among other things, the political impact of late-night comedy. “It’s not the case that candidates can necessarily reach [voters] through conventional ways. Twenty years ago if you wanted to watch television at 6:30 you could pretty much only watch the news, and you would hear news of the campaign. Now it’s so easy for people to tune that out, that I think it behooves candidates to go on these entertainment programs . . . to present their nonpolitical persona, which is more likely to resonate with people who are not following the campaign as closely as others.”

But do these Daily Show and Colbert Report devotees get their news exclusively from their favorite TV personalities, or do those who chuckle as David Letterman quips “John McCain looks like the guy who thinks the nurses are stealing his stuff” also pay attention to more serious political coverage?

Feldman, who arrived at AU this fall, is set to publish a paper later this year that examines the interplay between exposure to late-night comedy and attention to politics.

“There’s been a lot of concern in this narrative constructed in the media that young people are abandoning traditional news and getting all of their information from late night comedy, and we know that’s not true,” she says. “My study looked at whether exposure to late night comedy during a campaign might actually lead people to pay more attention to the campaign in traditional network news or cable news. We found that to be the case as a result of watching either Jay Leno or David Letterman. People who watched during the 2004 primaries were more likely to tune in to and pay attention to the campaign in traditional network and cable news sources.”

That’s a positive development, Feldman argues.

“It’s brought a lot of attention to the candidates among people who might not otherwise have been paying that much attention,” she says. “The more people pay attention to politics, the more likely they are to go to other information sources and go and vote on election day–that’s great.”


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