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Move over ABC, CBS and NBC. Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," featured nightly on Comedy Central, contains as much substantial news as evening network news shows, according to findings by a study conducted at IU.
Julia Fox, an assistant professor of telecommunications at IU and graduate students Glory Koloen and Volkan Sahin conducted research that found Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" to be as substantive as the major news networks, defining substantive news as coverage that referred to political issues and candidate qualifications in the 2004 election, according to the study released Wednesday.
The study, which is the first of its kind, was created to show the amount of substance found during news coverage of the 2004 presidential election. The researchers were also looking for find the sources from which people younger than 30 got their news during the election. Statistically, the study found as much substantive news on "The Daily Show" as on "ABC Evening News," "CBS Evening News" and "NBC Nightly News."
"We coded all of the video and audio that was about the presidential election, and we used the coding scheme that has indicators of what we consider being substance," Fox said. "There were just as many issues and references in 'The Daily Show' as there were in the networks."
In order to compare the amount of news among the shows, Fox analyzed how much real news per second each show broadcast during the election.
Fox said she worked on studies of the network coverage of the presidential elections from 1988 through 2004. She said that in the last election, "The Daily Show" became an important source of news and she was interested in how many people got their news from the comedy show.
"My past research had suggested to me that the news hadn't done a great job of informing viewers, so I wondered how much worse 'The Daily Show' could be," she said.
The information from the study has also led Fox to conduct a second study, in which she will look to find a correlation between laughter and what viewers get out of news.
"When people are in a positive mood, they're taking in more information and will be more approachable," Fox said. "You also hear the audience laughing on 'The Daily Show,' and hearing other people laughing can also put you in that approach mode. People may actually be having an automatic intentional response when they hear the onset of the laughter."
Comedy Central spokesman Steve Albani said in a phone interview that the goal of "The Daily Show" is not to educate its viewers about the news. The goal, he said, is to make people laugh.
"The producers assume a level of pre-existing knowledge going into the show," Albani said in a phone interview. "If people don't know about what's going on, they're going to miss out on the humor. Take the Mark Foley scandal, for instance. (The show is) going to make a reference about it but will assume that people know about it beforehand."
The study has also caused some IU students to question the value and importance of network news. Senior Steve Skowronski said he is now skeptical of the news he receives.
"I was pretty shocked because I can watch Comedy Central and ABC or NBC and basically get the same amount of information," Skowronski said. "You'd think that you'd get more through the main news stations."
IU student Carla Chickedantz said she wonders whether some of the statements Stewart makes are true because of his humorous portrayal.
"I think people are more drawn to something that's going to be entertaining," Chickedantz said. "I think the main news stations like CBS and ABC repeat their stories a little bit more, which is probably going to make them a little less substantive."
Because of its intention of being comedic, Albani said it can be harmful for viewers to get all of their news from "The Daily Show." He said what people need to do is watch the major networks to get a good idea of the news and then come to "The Daily Show" for a fun spin on current events. He said if viewers base their knowledge of current events solely on "The Daily Show," their knowledge will be "woefully incomplete."
"(The show) certainly provides a source of news," Albani said. "But if it's the best news source, I think the producers would question that. I think they would encourage anyone who is finding anything interesting on the show to go to a more legitimate news source to find more about the subject."
Fox's study will be published next summer by the Journal of Broadcast and Electronic Media.