The jokes, critiques and issues raised by late-night comedy television hosts may have a significant impact on how much people talk about the upcoming political election, based on a new study from the University of Michigan.
The study, which was just released electronically and due out soon in print in the September 2012 issue of Mass Communication and Society, found that the political satire can be just as effective as regular political news in encouraging discussion among audience members. The research also discovered that while both late-night comedy television and hard news engaged audiences, late-night audiences were more likely to use online interaction as a way to comment on political issues.
"The constructive role of comedy shows evidenced in this study suggests that political entertainment may serve as an important catalyst for revitalized civic life," Hoon Lee, the article's author said. "This is an important finding, because then political candidates may be willing to use comedy programs to enhance their images."
Over 700 individuals participated in an online experiment and survey. The author broke the individuals into groups, and participants either watched The Daily Show with Jon Steward, NBC Nightly News or a clip about a Walt Disney World resort, comparing scores on political participation and discussion between these groups.
The ability to spoof political figures on these television shows, such as Tina Fey's impersonation of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live in 2008, might raise questions about the power of show producers to influence the political agenda. This study doesn't tell us how the audience's voting decisions will be changed, but does suggest that such portrayals will make people talk about the portrayed issues with other people. This highlights the importance that late-night television comedy can have on politics.
"Political comedy can play a significant role in the public realm," Lee said. "The results from the experiment and survey demonstrate that exposure to late-night satire can enrich deliberative and participatory democracy."
- Hoon Lee. Communication Mediation Model of Late-Night Comedy: An Examination of the Mediating Role of Structural Features of Interpersonal Talk between Late-Night Comedy Viewing and Political Participation. Mass Communication and Society, 2012
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