Biting satire and witty analysis combined with current events updates are the essence of the rising format of full-length humorous news programs. These shows mimic traditional television news programs, including anchor(s) and often special segments, correspondents, and interviews, but with an approach to news based in comedy and satire.
By Barbara Yvonne Roth
Two of the best known of these programs from the U.S., the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, have rapidly growing viewerships. The Daily show was watched by an average of 2.5 million people in 2013, up nearly threefold since 2003. These shows also have a remarkably young audience. Around 40% of the viewers of each program are between the ages of 18-29 according to the Pew Research Center, a leading U.S. think tank that researches public opinion and social issues. This large, young audience showing interest in political information likely contributes to the willingness of top politicians to appear as guests.
These shows have a growing popularity and very young audience at a time when young people in particular are showing a steady decline in consumption of news. Pew Research Center data indicates that people aged 18-29 spent an average of just 45 minutes per day consuming the news in 2012, having decreased 20% in 8 years.
If younger generations are turning away from hard news and perhaps the news in general, is there a chance that alternative formats such as humor based news programs could stand to take over the function of creating an informed public?
Although these shows take a humorous approach, information about contemporary politics is being presented in a potentially useful format. The question, however, that many experts are trying to answer is whether these programs can carry information across as effectively as hard news programs and what will happen if youth get the bulk of their political information from them. Do satire based news programs stand a chance to take over these important functions? Are they limited to largely an audience that was already interested and informed, making conjecture about the broader public misguided? Experts are highly divided.
Some see hope that these programs will serve to generate interest in politics among younger viewers where it appears to be waning. Interviews with two of the leading scholars conducting research on the subject gave a taste of the range of scholarly views on the effects of these shows. The first expert, Dr. Jody C. Baumgartner, is an associate professor of Political Science at East Carolina University and author of several papers on the subject.
Much of his research sheds light on the more troubling questions about these programs, in particular whether humor obscures the message of the news or impairs the transfer of information. These shows have the advantage of humor to make their content appealing and can thereby avoid sensationalization and other tactics used by other sources to try to revitalize waning interest, but if the message gets obscured in the format, then the informative function fails. Some studies of the Colbert Report have found that the retention of information is poor and there is a great chance that sarcasm will be lost on less informed viewers.
For example, a 2008 study by Dr. Baumgartner published with Jonathan S. Morris in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, looked at a sample of young college students whose age, education level and level of political knowledge was comparable to the average viewership of these programs. The study found that exposure to The Colbert Report clips on an issue made the students more supportive of the Republican party’s position on that issue, a position presented satirically. Mistaking sarcasm and satire for fact, not only for the very uninformed, but possibly occurring on a subconscious level among a range of viewers, could mean that these shows could even contribute to misinformation, a very dangerous side effect for the public.
However many other studies which have come to far less bleak conclusions about the potential of these programs. A 2013 study by Amy B. Becker published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research found that viewers who watched an interview on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report were more likely to recall the name and political positions of the figure being interviewed, compared to a groups shown an interview of the same figures on the same issues from hard news programs. Regaining people’s attention for long-form interviews would be a very meaningful effect in a world in which attention for news is decreasing and much consumption occurs in as little as a few seconds of skimming headlines without absorption of much in the way of details or analysis.
Many experts, including Professor Paul Brewer of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, seem fairly optimistic about the potential of these shows. When asked whether he believes satire programs can inform the public with comparable effectiveness, he said he believed “there was good evidence that satire programs can inform the public”. He cautioned however, that these effects may be limited to being a good source “some of the time for some of the people,” pointing out that to understand the humor, some background knowledge is required.
This contrasts starkly to the decided skepticism of Dr. Jody Baumgartner. When he was asked for his view on whether humor based news programs could inform as well as hard news he replied unequivocally: “The evidence suggests: no…those who are relatively uninformed or underinformed can learn some things from watching humor based programming, but no, certainly not at a comparable level to hard news.” Dr. Baumgartner went on to suggest that while many of the theories on humor programming may be appealing, the evidence for the effectiveness of these programs in carrying over information simply wasn’t there. He suggested that a future public that relied on these types of programs for their news would probably simply be less informed.
When asked about the likely news sources of future generations, Dr. Brewer suggested that in addition to online media, satire news programs would be a relevant source. The data any experts seem to agree that for better or worse, it seems satire based programs are likely here to stay. Consumption continues to grow and the format is spreading, for example to post-Revolution Egypt where Bassem Youssef began a program based on the Daily Show. The question of what the effects will be remains open and an increasingly popular topic of lively scholarly debate.
Barbara Yvonne Roth is a student of Political Science and Media and Communication Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her academic focus is on international relations, in particular non-violent resistance and human security. She grew up in the United States but has since lived and worked abroad, most recently in Berlin, Germany.