Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Do People Actually Learn from Colbert and Stewart?

We've had some time now to review an emerging body of work that asks whether people learn from such faux news programs as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.  While I'm not going to bore you with a formal lit review, I will try to summarize what we know so far about the effects of such "soft news" programs.
  • People view such programs differently than traditional news.  Call this the couch potato hypothesis.  With less mental effort you get less learning.  After all, most people sit down in front of the TV to be entertained and even when they do try to be informed by such content, the brain is wired differently. 
  • Similar to above is the empty-calorie hypothesis, that idea that people will rely on humorous forms of news and feel filled up, like sucking on a Coke, and won't consume their vegetables (real news).  The result?  Less knowledge.
  • What you know matters.  Well-informed folks glean more from an information source than less-informed.  That said, TV best serves those who know least, especially TV news, because of the way TV tells a story versus the traditional inverted pyramid of print news, which with its emphasis on the latest information first assumes prior knowledge.
  • Humor is thought to get in the way of learning, but to help in persuasion.  The theory is straightforward -- humor lowers our defenses, reduces counter-arguing, and is therefore more likely to persuade.  But humor interferes with actual learning.
  • The content of these faux news programs resembles in some ways the TV newscasts.  Content analyses find many similarities, though these also find dramatic differences.  It's hard to make tragedy funny, and often Colbert and Stewart take the easy way out, the easy laugh, because it can backfire if you try to make a tragedy into something it's not.  Quite simply, unless you're consuming traditional news, there are huge holes in your information, gaps found in news quizzes or measures of political knowledge.
  • But ... the people who watch these programs tend to be news junkies anyway, well-educated and young, people who "get" the jokes because they're at least moderately informed.
  • Finally, it's that "moderate" thing that matters.  It's the folks who attend to no news but watch these programs who come out losers, at least as measured by tests of political knowledge.
  • Beware the methodological mess-up.  Sometimes scholars will combine these two shows with the late-night talk shows (i.e., Jay Leno).  They are not the same.  Different content, different audiences, different results.  I'm in the middle of a study that finds, today, you really have to ask about exposure to specific networks (Fox News, etc.) and even specific programs (The O'Reilly Factor) to get at the kinds of effects that matter in political communication.

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