Much will be written about Jon Stewart’s decision to leave The Daily Show, both from a historical and cultural impact. This will not be one of those thinkpieces, probably. Instead I want to briefly share some upcoming research about Stewart’s work that is relevant to reflecting on his tenure as host of one of the most important shows on television.
TCU’s Chip Stewart and I have finished a work (note: this is the first draft of the paper, not the final version) on satire news and TV news credibility, accepted and due to publish in Electronic News in a few months. In our study, we analyzed the The Daily Show and The Colbert Report content in a couple different ways. First, we found television news was portrayed far more negatively than print, radio or online news, and in particular cable news was the prime target. In addition, while newspaper information was used to build jokes about the subject matter (such as information from the New York Times used to make a joke about a politician referenced in that information), for television the target of the joke often was the TV newscast itself, often a portrayal of a network doing a bad job reporting or showing incompetent or illogical presentation.
The second part of our study polled audiences of these two shows and found that credibility ratings were lowest for television compared to other platforms. Second-level agenda setting theory says that media portrayals can influence how we think about media objects and subjects, and the survey confirms that this is happening with these satire shows. We conclude that the relentless negative portrayal and outright mockery of TV news conditions the audience to distrust TV news because those negative characteristics become more salient in viewers’ minds.
The tl;dr version: These Comedy Central shows just pilloried television news for being incompetent and terrible, and audiences who watched the shows a lot absorbed that message and reflected that negative view of the medium’s news offerings.
Taken individually, the survey or content analysis might appear obvious, but in connecting the results we argue for a media effect, that these satire shows set the agenda for the way in which people think about TV news. Given that Stewart’s run was 15 years or so, we argue that the relentless negativity toward TV news likely has conditioned an entire generation to distrust TV news, particularly cable news. If you want a sign of the impact Stewart (and the recently departed Colbert) made, I would start there.
It’s possible to look at this as Stewart or Colbert being cynical, but we argue that what was driving the portrayals was the opposite. Stewart in particular was coming from an earnest point of view of what news should be – fair-minded, serious, geared toward public service, investigative, dedicated to helping us understand great issues of our time, and holding power accountable. What we got on the shows instead was a healthy dose of what often passes for TV news – focus on silly controversy and spectacle-as-news.
Because of that, I’d argue Stewart’s true legacy was that he gave us a nightly dose of media literacy. Viewers were entertained, yes, but implicit in the show’s critique was a view of what the news ought to be, and what we aren’t getting. He famously went on Crossfire, for example, and berated the spectacle when the hosts expected him to just do comedy.
I don’t know if his successor can live up to that standard, but I hope they try. It has been a worthy experiment and research shows Daily Show viewers are getting a healthy dose of news from the format. As satire news continues to grow in many different formats, the potential for it to set the agenda for how people think about the news only becomes a more serious problem for news organizations. John Oliver has offered a worthy expansion on what Stewart and Colbert started. Clickhole has brutally satirized the clickbait trend. Stewart leaving is the end of an era, but it’s not going to stop the trend.