College students who watch the satirical TV program, “The Daily Show,” are more skeptical and knowledgeable about politics and media, according to two East Carolina University political science professors.
Jay Morris and Jody Baumgartner found students in their political science classes regularly cited the TV program on Comedy Central.
“We found some of our students viewed (show host) Jon Stewart as one of their major sources of news,” said Morris, a political science professor at ECU. “We started to think about that show and what the consequences might be if someone relied on it as a news source.”
Known for its biting satire and irreverent treatment of politics and current events, “The Daily Show” is considered soft or entertainment news. Many of the show’s viewers are in their teens and twenties.
“One learns even through entertainment-based programs. Soft news can educate people and provide information about an event,” said Baumgartner, an ECU political science professor. “Even with fake news, people can learn current events from “‘The Daily Show.’”
In August 2004, Morris and Baumgartner asked 732 students, mostly freshmen and sophomores in introductory level political science classes, to answer a survey. One-third of the students watched an eight-minute clip of “The Daily Show,” another third watched a segment of CBS Nightly News and the rest had no video prompt.
They found that those students who watched “The Daily Show” were more likely to respond that they were cynical about politics and the media, and that they felt confident about their knowledge of current events.
“Previous research links cynicism to political disengagement; others say having a healthy skepticism about politics and the media can get people more involved,” Morris said.
While cynicism can lead to apathy and a feeling of alienation from the political process, Baumgartner and Morris say there is no direct link between cynical attitudes and voting.
Cynicism can lead to apathy, they said, but it can also be the spark that gets more people involved.
“It’s not just whether to vote or not vote,” Baumgartner said. “People can talk with their friends, volunteer on a campaign, donate money, write letters, organize a protest.”
In addition to preparing for continuing their research about the role soft news plays with the presidential elections in 2008, Baumgartner and Morris are editing a book about the role of humor in American politics, to be published in 2007.
“It’s obviously resonating with young adults. No one relies on Mark Twain or ‘The Onion’ (a weekly satire newspaper) for their political news,” Morris said. “Jon Stewart is the most trusted name in news by a mile.”