It was probably inevitable, in an era when TV news has morphed further and further into titillation and “infortainment.”
A new study by Indiana University concludes that the popular comedy program, “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, is just as substantive as “serious” primetime network news broadcasts.
Julia R. Fox, assistant professor of telecommunications at the university, says she’s not joking. In fact, she titled her study “No Joke: A Comparison of Substance in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Broadcast Network Television Coverage of the 2004 Presidential Election Campaign.” It’s scheduled for publication next summer by the Journal of Broadcast and Electronic Media, a publication of the Broadcast Education Association.
“It is clearly a humor show, first and foremost,” said Fox of “The Daily Show.” “But there is some substance on there, and in some cases, like John Edwards announcing his candidacy, the news is made on the show. You have real newsmakers coming on, and yes, sometimes the banter and questions get a little silly, but there is also substantive dialogue going on … It’s a legitimate source of news.”
Last week, for example, “The Daily Show” featured as a guest Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf.
A great deal has been written about “The Daily Show,” particularly on the large number of young people who claim they watch the comedy show for political information. In fact, that’s exactly what prompted Fox to launch her study.
To quantify the amount of “substantive” news being broadcast, Fox, along with two graduate students at the school, Glory Koloen and Volkan Sahin, analyzed coverage of the 2004 national political conventions as well as the first presidential debate by the networks and Stewart’s program. They analyzed nightly news broadcasts on July 26-30, Aug. 30-31 and Sept. 1-3 in 2004. Similarly, they studied episodes of “The Daily Show” on July 27-30, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1-3 in 2004.
“Conventions typically offer candidates a chance to present their views on what they consider to be the important issues facing the nation and are critically important for shoring up political bases and reaching out to independent voters, said Fox, explaining why she chose this methodology. “While debates tend to reinforce pre-existing candidate preferences, they are particularly important for activating supporters and can sway undecided voters.”
Although a second-by-second analysis of “The Daily Show’s” audio and visual content found considerably more humor than substance, a similar analysis of network coverage “found considerably more hype than substance in broadcast newscasts,” said a press statement by Fox, specifying references to polls, political endorsements and photo opportunities as examples of “hype.”
“Interestingly,” wrote Fox in the research paper, “the average amounts of video and audio substance in the broadcast network news stories were not significantly different than the average amounts of visual and audio substance in ‘The Daily Show’ with Jon Stewart stories about the presidential election.”
“In an absolute sense,” concluded the researcher, “we should probably be concerned about both of those sources, because neither one is particularly substantive. It’s a bottom-line industry and ratings-driven. We live in an ‘infotainment’ society, and there certainly are a number of other sources available.”
Here’s how “The Daily Show” describes itself on its website.
One anchor, five correspondents, zero credibility.
If you’re tired of the stodginess of the evening newscasts, if you can’t bear to sit through the spinmeisters and shills on the 24-hour cable news networks, don’t miss The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a nightly half-hour series unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity or even accuracy.
The Emmy and Peabody Award-winning Daily Show takes a reality-based look at news, trends, pop culture, current events, politics, sports and entertainment with an alternative point of view. In each show anchorman Jon Stewart and a team of correspondents, including Dan Bakkedahl, John Oliver, Ed Helms, Jason Jones and Samantha Bee and Lewis Black, comment on the day’s stories, employing actual news footage, taped field pieces, in-studio guests and on-the-spot coverage of important news events.
The “Comedy Central” hit program sums it all up with its tag line: “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – it’s even better than being informed.”