Political satires provide insight
Published: Monday, October 1, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 1, 2012 22:10
As TV personalities and hosts of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have found a special niche in the political arena. During the election season, when there is a heightened political interest, viewers rely on Stewart and Colbert to indicate the important election issues.
Recent trends, like increased viewership of political satires, during the Republican National Convention, would indicate that more people are turning to shows like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” as a main source of political information.
Professor Dannagal Young, who specializes in political humor, says that this may not necessarily be the case.
“In 2004, studies indicated national [news] audiences were shrinking while ‘The Daily Show’s’ audience was growing,” Young says. “They concluded, wrongly, all those people who used to be watching news must now be watching comedy.”
The notion that people are replacing traditional news sources with satirical shows is largely false, according to “Dispelling Late-Night Myths,” a 2006 study by Young and Russell Tisinger, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
According to the study, the audiences of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are made of people who are already politically active, with the highest rates of political awareness and literacy.
“People who watch ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘Colbert’ watch cable news, they listen to NPR, they get their news online,” Young says. “They are still watching the regular news.”
The very nature of the shows drive audience members to traditional news sources, as was the focus of a 2004 study by Young and Lauren Feldman, professor in the School of Communication at American University. The study found that “some degree of knowledge about public affairs is necessary to appreciate the shows’ topical humor.”
Statistically, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report’s” audiences are more educated on some topics than audiences of other news programs. In a survey conducted from Jan. 18 to Jan. 25, results show satirical news viewers were most knowledgeable about Occupy Wall Street while agreeing with its purpose. The Fox News audience was the least informed, but more likely to disagree on the purpose of Occupy Wall Street.
Young attributes this difference in knowledge to the satirical news audience’s tendency to seek out alternate sources of information.
Dylan Gallimore, UD Independents’ president, says citizens have to draw political knowledge from many different sources. Gallimore says RealClearPolitics.com is one of his primary sources.
“The youth is still learning and forming opinions, so we have to get information from numerous outlets,” Gallimore says.
Sasha Nader, UD Democrats’ secretary, agrees, saying she gets most of her information from CNN, Washington Post and Politico. She says she uses “The Daily Show” as “more of an opinion column, like an editorial cartoon with moving part.”
Instead of being the source of information about politics, Young says “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” fill a different role.
“What they can do is bring issues to the top of people’s minds,” Young says. “It’s what we call a priming effect.”
During the Iraq War, Stewart occasionally aired a segment called “Mess O’Petamia,” in which he questioned the motivation of the war, Bush and Rumsfeld’s reasoning for the invasion and the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
By doing this, Stewart ensured that the Iraq War was still in his audience’s mind and that people were thinking about it every day.
“While the war was falling off the news agenda, Stewart continued to cover it,” Young says.
Similarly, Colbert used his Super PAC to highlight Citizen’s United, the controversial Supreme Court ruling that labeled monetary donations as speech, allowing for unlimited corporate donations and the formation of a new kind of Political Action Committee. Before Colbert created a Super PAC for himself, the entities were relatively unknown. After Colbert brought them to the public’s attention, the Federal Election Committee saw a spike in letters and emails from the public, many decrying Super PACs in true Colbert fashion.
“He ironically challenged his viewers to write to the FEC about the deregulation of Super PACs,” Young says. “Usually they get one or two public comments – they got over 500 letters.”
In 2009, Young and fellow professor Lindsay Hoffman published a study comparing college students’ retention of knowledge of current events over the course of a week, based on whether they had watched The Daily Show or CNN Student News.
What they found was The Daily Show can teach people about current events, but not in a way that is surprising.
“The Daily Show didn’t surpass CNN in the effectiveness of teaching people [about current events],” Young says. “But it did teach people to the extent that CNN did as well.”