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Volume XXIX Number 2
Spring 2007

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Cover of Rolling Stone
Photo courtesy Rolling Stone

No Joke--The Daily Show Delivers the News

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart pitches itself as “better than being informed,” but increasing numbers of people--especially people under 30--rely on the show for political information. And they’re getting just as much information as they would from broadcast news.

That’s the finding of Julia Fox, assistant professor of telecommunications, and two of her graduate students at Indiana University Bloomington. The study will be published the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media this summer. Called "No Joke: A Comparison of Substance in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Broadcast Network Television Coverage of the 2004 Presidential Election Campaign," the paper drew its own share of media attention when it was released last fall, from CBS News to NPR to Rolling Stone.

While the political humor of Jon Stewart and his Comedy Central show make the headlines and blog sites regularly, Fox’s study is among the first to examine how comedic shows compare with network newscasts as a source of political information. Fox was prompted to do the research by the findings of a 2004 Pew Research Center survey. The nationwide survey revealed that the percentage of under-30 respondents who relied regularly on comedy programs like The Daily Show for campaign information was the same as the percentage of under-30 respondents who relied on the TV network evening news. "Given the growing number of young voters who say they expect The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to fulfill their political information needs, it begs the question as to whether those needs can be satisfied with that show," Fox says in her study.

Using all ABC, CBS, and NBC nightly newscasts and Daily Show programs that covered the 2004 conventions, Fox and her research team analyzed the shows minute by minute, assessing how much of the content was devoted to “horserace, hoopla, campaign issues, candidate qualifications, joking, and laughter.”

Horserace (emphasizing who’s ahead and behind in the polls) and hoopla (emphasizing rallies, baby kissing, celebrities, and the like) constitute hype, says Fox, and predictably, hype exceeded substance in the prime-time network news about the presidential campaigns. Also not surprisingly, The Daily Show’s stories contained significantly more humor than substance. But when the two media sources were compared, Fox found that there was no significant difference between the amount of substance in the network news stories and in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

“We’ve been wringing our hands for decades that the networks aren’t doing enough substance in the political coverage, so is it any real surprise that [The Daily Show] is just as substantive?” Fox says. “Our findings should allay at least some concerns about the growing reliance on this nontraditional source of political information, as it is just as substantive as the source that Americans have relied upon for decades.”

Fox notes that there is much more to explore when it comes to how viewers absorb information from The Daily Show, but “in an absolute sense,” she says, “we should probably be concerned about both sources, because neither one is particularly substantive.”

What does Stewart think about being a political news source? Fox notes that Stewart repeatedly insists he is a comedian, not a journalist, and that his show is about comedy. When asked about the findings of Fox’s study in a 2006 interview with The Columbus Dispatch, Stewart said, “I can tell you this, we definitely don’t mean to [educate the viewers].”

--L.B.