As an aspiring journalist among a troupe of others at Elon University, understanding the functions and effects of news consumption is a top priority for me. But it’s a double-edged sword because I certainly get tired of studying the media. This overexposure makes me especially susceptible to comedic “news” programs that satirize the current events that crop up endlessly in the classroom. Despite my extensive news literacy training, I feel myself becoming cynical of the reporting process, and besides myself, I have two people to blame.
Jon Stewart, of “The Daily Show, and Stephen Colbert, of “The Colbert Report”, are actors, not journalists. With this vital fact in mind, I am able to treat their programming as the entertainment it is designed to be. I’ve been to the filming of multiple episodes of The Colbert Report, and his staff stresses that he is in character, expressing views that are not his own. While on set, entertainers like Colbert dissect current events and the coverage they receive.
The clips of traditional news packages that are regularly played on shows like these are manipulated and constructed to make jokes about individuals and organizations, which distorts the accuracy and severity of their news content.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the satirical spin on current events. We all need to take a step back now and then to laugh at the mockeries that are the GOP election and Sarah Palin’s frequent bouts of idiocy. I attended one taping where Colbert poked fun at concerns regarding Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s sexuality. It really was absurd to think her affinity for softball made her a bad candidate for the position, and for Colbert, the best way to make that point was to pretend to take it seriously. But I worry that satirical coverage of serious issues keeps us from thinking critically about solutions. Viewers like me are becoming cynical, giving up on certain causes because they seem so absurd. But let’s remember, it isn’t all a laughing matter.
In 2007, The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism studied the content of The Daily Show for an entire year and made some interesting discoveries. Viewers of The Daily Show are among the most well-informed news consumers in the country. How come? It has to be because they were more likely to consume news from other sources. Regular viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were also most likely to score in the highest percentile on knowledge of current affairs.
Viewers of these shows simultaneously stay well-informed and entertained. Today, I don’t know if it’s possible to have one without the other and survive on TV. If satire is what it takes to prevent rampant apathy, then bring it on. But let’s not lose sight of the importance of issues and our responsibility to partake in the political process. I’ll be the first one to say that I need a breather from the realities of social injustice, economic struggle and governmental failures, but this distraction can’t become a way of news consumption. Jon Stewart’s viewers complement his jokes with hard facts from the Internet, newspapers and traditional television news. We should all try to do the same.