Issues such as health care and the war in Afghanistan are no joking matter, but popular news-themed comedy shows often focus on those topics — and they do deliver information that resonates with viewers.
During the most comprehensive study of its kind, in 2012 a Penn State researcher examined the attitude, involvement and knowledge of viewers who watched those types of shows compared to nightly network news.
Participants in the study either watched a network newscast or a clip from the “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report.”
Researcher Michel Haigh, an associate professor in the department of advertising/public relations, utilized a larger group of respondents than previous research on the topic. Haigh’s group was composed of more than 320 college-age respondents. Additionally, her research relied on a two-phase, face-to-face experiment focusing on social issues as opposed to political personalities.
“A majority of political communication research examines politicians’ characteristics and personalities, not issues. It’s often about candidates,” said Haigh, who was included on NerdScholar’s “40 Under 40” list of professors who inspire earlier this year. “What mattered to me was the issues and the information viewers obtained.”
Haigh’s research found that those watching the evening news had more knowledge about Afghanistan and health care reform than those watching the late-night comedies. They also had stronger attitudes and were more involved in the issues when compared to viewers of “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report.”
Haigh’s work was the first to include both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” in the same study. Previous work usually included only one or the other.
“The type of humor used in these shows is different,” Haigh said. “So it was important to see how the humor impacted viewers.”
Viewers’ knowledge, attitude and involvement in the issues increased when watching either show, so the type of humor used by hosts Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, satire and parody, respectively, was not a factor.
The shows, which air weeknights on Comedy Central, do more than deliver information. They also deliver viewers — with “The Daily Show” averaging 2.02 million viewers each night and “The Colbert Report” about 1.9 million.
Previous research by others in the field labeled those who watched comedy-themed news programs as “cognitive misers,” indicating they watched mostly for entertainment purposes and were not as cognitively engaged with the shows. However, because Haigh established a baseline of the participants’ knowledge before conducting the survey, she found that viewers did gain knowledge while watching the shows that regularly employ political parody and satire.
The “CBS Evening News” was used for the research because of the amount of time it dedicated to the topics and the availability of clips. It pulls in about 6.48 million viewers per night.
The nightly program has been airing since 1963, and CBS has been broadcasting some nightly news program since 1948, longer than any other broadcast network. ABC’s first nightly news program aired in 1953 and NBC produced its initial nightly news program in 1970. According to current ratings, the “NBC Nightly News” is the top-rated network broadcast.
Those who watch traditional broadcast news had stronger attitudes, more knowledge about the social issues and can craft stronger arguments than those who rely only on the comedies, according to Haigh’s research.
“Watching evening news significantly changes individuals’ attitudes toward a topic when compared to those watching late-night satire or the control condition,” she concluded. “Individuals also become significantly more involved in the issue being discussed when compared to those watching late-night satire.”
As the way people consume information changes and as TV viewing habits morph, Haigh said she anticipates several routes for continued research in regard to how different programs shape viewers’ attitudes, involvement and knowledge. That might include fictional political dramas, political docudramas, situation comedies and reality-based content.
“It’s an interesting area,” Haigh said. “It’s interesting to me to find out more about how people obtain information and what shapes their engagement with issues.”
In 2012, Haigh was recognized as a Plank Fellow. The fellowship program for public relations educators is sponsored by the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations at the University of Alabama. The program is designed to introduce professors to the current day-to-day operations of the public relations field. In 2011, she was selected to attend the 2011 Scripps Howard Leadership Academy. The academy brings select, up-and-coming mass communication professionals and scholars together to train the next generation of leaders in journalism and mass communication.