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The Daily Show: The Best Place for Engaging Wider Audiences on Science?

If you watch The Daily Show, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that host Jon Stewart’s father was a physicist.  The popular program, along with its partner in satire The Colbert Report, feature a number of scientists as frequent guests.  Analyses even find that these programs feature more science and environment-related content than network news programming. As USA Today’s Dan Vergano reported earlier this year, guests such as astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson and physicist Brian Greene believe strongly in the programs’ ability to widen the audience for science-related discussions.

“Any access that real science gets to mass media is a good thing,” Tyson told Vergano. “Colbert and Stewart are very smart people. And they know the value and meaning of science.”

Which prompts the question, what evidence is there for the potential of these programs—rich with satire and built on comedy—to engage viewers on complex issues such as climate change, or to promote learning about science more generally? 

Below is part 3 of an interview with Lauren Feldman, a colleague here at the School of Communication at American University.  Feldman, one of the leading scholars studying the impacts of political entertainment, discusses some of her recent research that finds that Daily Show viewing can actually help close the education gap in attentiveness to issues such as climate change. She also discusses the potential for the Daily Show to be used to teach media literacy among students and adults.

In your research, you recently started examining how the Daily Show and similar comedy programs portray science-related topics such as climate change.  Why might this be important?

Well, despite the central role that science and technology play in the lives of American citizens, public engagement with science and technology is weak, particularly relative to other issues. Americans don’t pay much attention to news about science, technology, and the environment, and concern about climate change is at an all time low. This is, in part, due to declining coverage of these topics by the mainstream news media, as well as to the complexity of scientific information: It is both time-consuming and challenging for the average citizen to develop an understanding of science.

Relative to the mainstream news media, however, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are extremely generous in their coverage of science and environmental issues, with the potential to help make science more accessible and engaging to the public. For example, a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in 2007, The Daily Show devoted a greater percentage of its news hole to science/technology and environmental stories than did the mainstream news media. Global warming, specifically, received twice as much coverage on The Daily Show than it did in the mainstream press.

A recent column by Dan Vergano at USA Today suggested that Comedy Central is the place for science and scientists on television. My own informal scan of past episodes of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show on Comedy Central’s website found that, between October 2005 and April 2010, the two shows have together hosted more than three dozen scientists.

For example, physicist Neil de Grasse Tyson has appeared on The Colbert Report seven times, the record for any guest, and on The Daily Show four times. Both shows have also featured public figures and advocates discussing science and environmental policy issues, including Al Gore, who is a major voice on the issue of climate change, and Ron Reagan, Jr., who has spoken out in support of stem cell research.

So, while most of the empirical research on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report has focused on their implications for news and politics, the shows’ coverage of science and environmental topics suggest that there might be considerable impact in this arena as well.

For one, by making science part of the discourse of popular culture, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are likely to increase the motivation to pay attention to and learn about science among people who might otherwise tune out such information. In general, there is a need for more systematic research – using many of the same theoretical models used to study the impact of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in political campaign contexts – on how science and scientists are being portrayed on these programs and what exactly audiences are taking away from these portrayals.

What are your specific findings relative to the impact of late night comedy programming on views and understanding about climate change?

This is a new research program of mine, and as a first step, I – along with colleagues Anthony Leiserowitz and Edward Maibach – investigated whether people who watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report pay more attention to news and information about science, the environment, and climate change. Not only did we find support for this hypothesis, we also found that watching these programs helps reduce traditional gaps in science attentiveness between those with low and high levels of education.  

In other words, the relationship between satirical news use and attentiveness to science, the environment, and climate change was most pronounced among those with the least amount of formal education. This is ostensibly because those with less education find it more challenging and time-consuming to acquire information about science and the environment than those with more education, and are thus less motivated to seek it out on their own; however, by piggybacking such information on entertainment content like The Daily Show and Colbert Report, attention to these topics becomes an inadvertent consequence of entertainment consumption. Our findings will appear in a forthcoming edited volume called Perspectives on Fake News: The Social Significance of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

What are the implications from this research for engaging audiences on the issue?

Our findings indicate that satirical news programs can be important outlets for broadening public attention to science and the environment. Scientists are well-advised to follow the lead of politicians and appear as interview guests on these programs, as these appearances – along with The Daily Show and Colbert Report’s topical coverage of scientific and environmental issues – are helping to raise the profile of science and the environment among harder to reach audiences.

Besides the focus on perceptions of societal problems such as climate change, what do you think are other important research questions about political entertainment and comedy that deserve attention in future work?

I think there’s much more work to be done regarding the role of comedy in science engagement. While we know that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report increase public attentiveness to science and the environment, it is important to consider whether the satirical tenor of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report detracts from the perceived importance or seriousness of the scientific and environmental issues they cover.

The utility of comedy and entertainment, more generally, for engaging the public around issues of science and the environment should be further explored, ideally through controlled experiments that compare audience responses to scientific information portrayed in comedic and non-comedic formats.

Another area that is ripe for study is the role of news satire in promoting news media literacy.  Arguably, The Daily Show is at its best when it is critiquing the news media. An important question is whether watching the program actually helps make audiences more critical and discerning news consumers, a question that is increasingly relevant given the vast amount of information – much of which is of dubious credibility – that citizens are forced to sift through in our contemporary media environment.  

What do readers think? Are programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report unrecognized channels for engaging wider audiences on science and related issues?

See Also:

What Viewers Learn about Politics from The Daily Show

Researcher Examines Daily Show’s Impact on Political Culture

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Framing Science

Below watch one of The Daily Show segments featuring astronomer and author Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Stewart opens the interview by asking Tyson to explain the university in 5 minutes.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c Neil deGrasse Tyson Pt.

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