Since Jon Stewart has become the poster boy for political humor, academics have been chomping at the bit to draw conclusions about “The Daily Show’s” contribution to our political process. The most recent academic study to garner some attention is a paper published by American Politics Research titled “The Daily Show Effect: Candidate Evaluations, Efficacy, and American Youth.”The Toronto Star touted the research with the headline “Is Jon Stewart helping or hurting?” The study finds that, at least for the young college students they studied, those who watched "The Daily Show" experienced a corresponding increase in cynicism toward not only John Kerry but also the news media and the electoral process in general. Curiously, George W. Bush wasn't viewed with more cynicism.
"We are not saying The Daily Show is bad for democracy," says study co-author Jonathan Morris, an assistant professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. "I'm a fan of The Daily Show. I watch it very frequently.
"We're just pointing out that exposure to this show among young adults is associated with cynicism toward political candidates and the political process as a whole."
Of course this is vastly oversimplifying the study, but the basic argument is:
A) Watching "The Daily Show" increases cynicism.
B) Increased cynicism is linked to decreased political participation.
So...watching "The Daily Show" leads to decreased political participation?
The study’s authors, Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris aren’t explicitly saying that, but they come pretty close to suggesting that may be what happens—or else why be concerned about an increase in cynicism to begin with?
Now as the author of an academic study, coincidentally also titled “The Daily Show Effect: Humor, News, Knowledge, & Viewers,” that tracked the guest appearances on the program, I have my own critique of Baumgartner’s and Morris’ work.
I think the focus on rising levels of cynicism caused by the program is missing the mark. While the authors are willing to concede that “a little skepticism toward the political process could be considered healthy for democracy” they go on to suggest that perhaps “The Daily Show’s” rip-roaring critiques might be just too pointed for young minds who don’t know much else about the politics. It may make them lose all faith in politics whatsoever.
Heavens to Murgatroid! We better make Jon Stewart less funny!
The problem is that their means of measuring “cynicism” is pretty broad, especially cynicism of the news media (their second finding). Participants were asked “I trust the news media to cover political events fairly and accurately” and they are shocked—shocked I tell you!—to find that their young college students have a high rate of distrust for the “news media.”
Asking people about such a general term as “news media” is like asking people to say how much they feel their “mother’s love.” You’re going to get about a puddle-deep response either way.
People have very complex feelings about media just like they can have complex feelings about politicians. Have you heard the old saw, you might hate Congress, but like your own particular congressperson?
Some of the same principles can be applied to asking about “trust” and “media.” Do young college students put full faith and trust in all “news media?” I doubt anyone of any age does anymore. But do they have trust in what they consider their news sources; be it blogs, Yahoo news, podcasts, or their school paper? Probably enough to keep returning to the same sources for information.
Everyone, from politicians to academics, is interested in finding out whether “The Daily Show” is some kind of programming, unique in all of cable television, that is both funny AND good for you. But showing causality between watching "The Daily Show" and thinking or acting in a certain way is going to be a tough nut to crack. Academics and politicians have been trying to show causal links between entertainment and bad effects in teenagers (violence, increased sex drive, or political apathy) ever since the movies were first invented. I would caution anyone—news media outlets in particular—from making headlines out of any study that purports to show that "The Daily Show" causes its viewers to be anything other than entertained.
But hey, if you want to immerse yourself in some pretty interesting academic studies of "The Daily Show," here are a few.
"Daily Show Viewers Knowledgeable About Presidential Campaign," by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which has a pretty interesting side-by-side joke analysis of Stewart versus other late-night comics.
"Comedy or News? Viewer Processing of Political News from The Daily Show," has an interesting experiment, if you show two groups a clip of "The Daily Show" and tell one that it’s a comedy show and one that it’s a news program, how do their responses to the information change?
"Internet Ranks Highest for Promoting Political Awareness and Civic Involvement Among Young People; Least used medium: National Evening News on TV or Cable," I think the title of the report speaks for itself. So while maybe those "college students" are right to distrust broadcast and cable news but they certainly aren't avoiding all news sources.
--Rachel Joy Larris
| Wednesday, May 24, 2006 2:02 PM