May 8, 2008

Journalism, Satire or Just Laughs? "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Examined

When Americans last year were asked to name the journalist they most admired, a comedian showed up at No. 4 on the list. Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central and former master of ceremonies at Academy Award shows, tied in the rankings with anchormen Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and cable host Anderson Cooper. [1]

Are Americans confused? What is Stewart doing on his program, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, that might cause people to consider him a journalist? How is the show similar to, and different from, what people get from the mainstream press? Beyond that, who—and what—gets skewered by Stewart and company, and who does not?

For answers, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism studied the content of The Daily Show for an entire year (2007), compared its news agenda with that of the more traditional news media, examined the lineup of guests and segments and tried to place the program into some kind of media context. [2]

The results reveal a television program that draws on the news events of the day but picks selectively among them—heavily emphasizing national politics and ignoring other news events entirely. In that regard, The Daily Show closely resembles the news agenda of a number of cable news programs as well as talk radio.

The program also makes heavy use of news footage, often in a documentary way that employs archival video to show contrast and contradiction, even if the purpose is satirical rather than reportorial. At other times, the show also blends facts and fantasy in a way that no news program hopefully ever would. In addition, The Daily Show not only assumes, but even requires, previous and significant knowledge of the news on the part of viewers if they want to get the joke. And, in 2007 at least, the joke was more often on the Bush Administration and its fellow Republicans than on those from the liberal side of the aisle.

Among the study’s findings:

  • The program’s clearest focus is politics, especially in Washington. U.S. foreign affairs, largely dominated by the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq, Washington politics and government accounted for nearly half (47%) of the time spent on the program. Overall, The Daily Show news agenda is quite close to those of cable news talk shows.
  • The press itself is another significant focus on The Daily Show. In all, 8% of the time was made up of segments about the press and news media. That is more than double the amount of coverage of media in the mainstream press overall during the same period.
  • A good deal of the news, however, is also absent from The Daily Show. In 2007, for example, major events such as the tragic Minneapolis bridge collapse were never discussed. And the shootings at Virginia Tech, the most covered story within a given week in 2007 by the overall press, received only a cursory mention.
  • Republicans in 2007 tended to bear the brunt of ridicule from Stewart and his crew. From July 1 through November 1, Stewart’s humor targeted Republicans more than three times as often as Democrats. The Bush Administration alone was the focus of almost a quarter (22%) of the segments in this time period.
  • The lineup of on-air guests was more evenly balanced by political party. But our subjective sense from viewing the segments is that Republicans faced harsher criticism during the interviews with Stewart. Whether this is because the show is simply liberal or because the Republicans control the White House is harder to pin down.

Stewart has always insisted that his show isn’t journalism and given its comedic core, its blurring of truth and fiction, and its ignoring of many major events, that is true in a traditional sense.

But it’s also true that, at times, The Daily Show aims at more than comedy. In its choice of topics, its use of news footage to deconstruct the manipulations by public figures and its tendency toward pointed satire over playing just for laughs, The Daily Show performs a function that is close to journalistic in nature—getting people to think critically about the public square. In that sense, it is a variation of the tradition of Russell Baker, Art Hoppe, Art Buchwald, H.L. Mencken and other satirists who once graced the pages of American newspapers.

How popular is The Daily Show? According to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in April 2007, 16% of Americans said they regularly watched The Daily Show or the Comedy Central spin-off, the Colbert Report. Those numbers are comparable to some major news programs. For instance, 17% said they regularly watched Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, and 14% watched PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer regularly. [3]

The survey also suggests Daily Show viewers are highly informed, an indication that The Daily Show is not their lone source of news. Regular viewers of The Daily Show and the Colbert Report were most likely to score in the highest percentile on knowledge of current affairs. [4]

The Daily Show, which began in 1996, now has an average audience of about 1.8 million. [5] By comparison, Fox News’ primetime show Hannity & Colmes had an average audience of 1.9 million in the first quarter of 2008, and CNN’s highest rated show, Election Center captured an average of 1.2 million viewers. [6] Stewart became host of the Show in 1999 and also serves as a writer and co-executive producer.

Structurally, The Daily Show combines elements of both traditional news shows and late night variety programs. Two commercial segments divide the 30 minute show into three distinct parts. Typically the first segment consists of Stewart’s monologue, which often uses video and audio clips. The second segment usually brings in correspondents who do skits, or staged interviews with Stewart. The third, and final, act of the show consists of a guest interview. Guests range from celebrities, to historians and politicians. [7]


Footnotes

1. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Today’s Journalists Less Prominent,” March 8, 2007. Available at: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=309
2. Traditional news media consists of a list of 48 news outlets that are a part of PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index. Read the methodology.
3. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions: What Americans Know: 1989-2007.” April 15, 2007. Available at: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=319
4. “Well-informed audiences come from cable (Daily Show/Colbert Report, O’Reilly Factor), the internet (especially major newspaper websites), broadcast TV (NewsHour with Jim Lehrer) and radio (NPR, Rush Limbaugh’s program).”
5. Average total viewers, 2008 year to date. Viewership data provided by Comedy Central, April 29 2008
6. Source: Nielsen Media Research analysis at MediaBistro.com. Available at:
http://www.mediabistro.com/tvnewser/original/1Q’08%20(LIVESD)%20FINAL%20P2%20Cable%20News%20Program%20Ranker.pdf
7. Once in a while guests appear for two separate segments: the second as well as the third. This is most frequently true for the most prominent figures, such as Presidential front-runners etc. Also, in one instance in 2007, a guest interview (with Ali Allawi on April 18) was aired as third and second to last story. A report on the falling stock market was the last story.

Cite this publication: Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project Staff. “Journalism, Satire or Just Laughs? "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Examined.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (May 8, 2008) http://www.journalism.org/2008/05/08/journalism-satire-or-just-laughs-the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-examined/, accessed on July 23, 2014.