First, the good news: If you look warily at the trend of younger viewers getting their political news from Jon Stewart, it might be comforting to know that a new study out of Indiana University finds "The Daily Show" is no less substantive than network television.
Now, the bad news: Neither is particularly substantive, says the study's principal author, IU telecommunications professor Julia R. Fox.
Fox and two of her graduate students based their findings on their analysis of ABC, CBS and NBC evening news and "The Daily Show" during the 2004 Democratic and Republican National Conventions and the first Bush-Kerry debate.
This was back in the day of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings. Fox provided Blinq with a copy of the paper, which is to be published next summer in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media.
"It's as good as the source Americans have relied on for decades," Fox said by phone of Comedy Central's show. "Neither one of them is particularly substantive. But any time you can get people engaged in the political process, that's a good thing. The fact is that a lot of young people have turned away from the network news to "The Daily Show" means at least they are still engaged and still paying attention to politics."
Fox and her co-authors clocked the amount of hype and substance on all four shows, defining the former as preoccupation with elections as horse races and coverage of such visuals as hand-shaking, baby-kissing and flag-waving. Substance was defined as attention to issues in party platforms and reporting candidates' political and governing records. They tracked both audio and video elements.
Increasingly academics are probing the effect of "The Daily Show" on political attitudes and awareness, as studies report on the increasing share of young audiences who rely on comedic sources for news. Last month Skidmore College professor Mary Zeiss Strange wrote in USA Today that her students who watch Stewart are quite news-savvy. "After all," she wrote, "in order to 'get' their humor, one has to already know something substantial about the stories they parody."
This was after two East Carolina University professors wrote in American Politics Research in May that Stewart-watching causes college-age Americans to become cynical about politicians and the media, and could discourage voting.
Fox and her colleagues write that while their findings should calm the concerns of those who worry about the growing reliance on a comedic source for news, there's reason to fret.
The lack of substance in the nightly news, they write, "should give pause to broadcast news executives in particular, and more generally to all politicians, citizens and schools concerned with the important information function that mass media, particularly television new sources, serve in our democracy."
More coverage here, at ArsTechnica.com