Focus on Research | Can satire save our nation’s democracy?

August 11, 2013 

Sophia A. McClennen is professor of international affairs and comparative literature and author of “Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy.”

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    Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects being conducted at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

If you are a college student today, chances are that at least some of your memories of the last presidential election include satire. Maybe you recall an extremely biting bit from Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show or one of Stephen Colbert’s stunts, such as the time that he took the stage and sang a duet with Herman Cain.

Or maybe you recall a story from The Onion, a viral graphic that kept showing up on your Facebook newsfeed, or a tweet that circulated repeatedly on Twitter.

A 2009 Rasmussen poll showed that nearly one-third of Americans under the age of 40 say satirical news-oriented television programs like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are taking the place of traditional news outlets.

And further research by the Pew Research Center shows that the younger demographic is looking more often to the Internet and to satire news than to traditional news sources for their information.

But, you are wondering, isn’t that a bad sign for our democracy? Satire is a form of mockery and can’t possibly teach young people how to respect the values at the core of our nation.

You don’t need to worry and here’s why. First of all, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center has shown that viewers of programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report actually score higher for accuracy on current events than viewers of programs like The O’Reilly Factor or The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and they also score higher than viewers of cable news sources like CNN and Fox News.

One of the reasons why this is so is because what used to be “traditional” news media is now almost totally dominated by opinion pieces, expert debates, and other forms of fluff that don’t actually offer viewers much in terms of objective information.

Any given time slot on a “news” channel is likely to have more subjective information than objective. And to make it worse, the subjective, pundit format of much of the news media tends to focus on superficial items — making it difficult for viewers to learn useful information that would help them form their own opinions.

In a recent example, major news sources spent almost as much time on Ed Snowden’s looks and love life as they did on the actual question of whether he was a whistleblower or a traitor. To make it worse, almost no time was spent on the actual information he uncovered.

Too often news media packages information in stark oppositions that allow experts to present opposite points of view. Such a format does not enhance the critical thinking necessary for engaged democratic participation.

So given these developments in the realm of news media, it comes as little surprise that young viewers are turning to the satirists who work hard to expose falsehoods circulating in politics and the media. Satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert function as a corrective for the sensational, often silly, news that is reported in the mainstream.

What we have for the first time in U.S. history is a range of satirical news sources that actually provide the public with more valuable information from which to make their own decisions than is offered in other TV news forms. So what might have begun as a cause for concern is actually cause for hope.

But there is even more reason to hope. The young generation of voters, often referred to as millennials, is voting at a higher rate than the older generations. Such civic participation is a healthy sign for the future of our democracy.

In the 2012 elections, young voters represented 19 percent of voters and they turned out at 50 percent, with 58 percent voting in swing states. This demographic rivals the baby boomers in size and will make up one-third of the electorate in 2015.

So for those who worry that the Internet-obsessed, social-media-absorbed young generation is losing its ability to connect with the democratic issues central to our society, you can put your mind at ease. In 2004, young voters had the largest increase in voter turnout since 1972 and last election they held strong on their numbers despite voter ID issues.

This generation gets their “news” from satire, from Facebook, from Twitter, and from the Internet. And satire’s call to question the status quo, to demand honesty and transparency from government, and to draw our own conclusions are some of the best lessons our youngest voters can learn.

Sophia A. McClennen is professor of international affairs and comparative literature and author of “Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy.”

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