The Pervasiveness of Soft News

By Jordan Heide

“The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have revolutionized political media since their respective debuts on Comedy Central. However, their legitimacy as credible sources for unbiased political information is significantly more ambiguous, according to leading researchers.

“The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” fall under a category known among political gurus as “soft news,” which is politically oriented news that is portrayed in a satirical and amusing manner. 

The fumbles of government officials and fellow pundits are often a critical focus of such news sources, with intents of underscoring the incompetency of our nation’s administration and the tendency of newscasters to erroneously interpret political insight. Political scholars have recently adopted the term “infotainment” to adequately describe the purpose of soft news, which Washington State University’s David Demers defines as “information-based media content or programming that also includes entertainment content in an effort to enhance popularity with audiences and consumers.”

University of California, Los Angeles’ Matthew Baum, one of the nation’s foremost academics on the topic of soft news, contends that “soft news is far less expensive to produce, and in many cases far more profitable, than original entertainment programming,” which accounts for the rise in prevalence of infotainment, and a subsequent rise in popularity of such programs.

Although captivating, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” demonstrate an immense deviation from the objectivity that defines journalistic integrity. As Baum asserts, the purpose of these outlets is not to inform, but to entertain, and in doing so, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” present highly subjective views of the political sphere. Cynicism and discontent are prevalent themes within “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” and have been shown to negatively affect audience perceptions of politicians; according to a study conducted by Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris of East Carolina University in 2006, “Watching political jokes made at the expense of presidential candidates on The Daily Show… lowered viewers’ ratings of these candidates.”

Regardless, many more Americans are relying on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” as consistent sources of news; each show draws in an average of 1.6 million viewers and 1.2 million viewers, respectively, which are considerably high volumes for cable programs. Most notably, “The Daily Show” receives more male viewers in the 18-34 age range than bona fide news sources such as Nightline and Meet the Press, according to CNN. Such statistics have reinforced the popularity of soft news programs among younger demographics, who are less frequent consumers of traditional news outlets than their elder counterparts. Jon Stewart, however, denies the permeating effects of “The Daily Show” as an influential source of political information for the nation’s youth:

“When people say that kids are getting most of their news from me…I’m [not] worried that they’re getting their news from me. The truth is [that] I know they’re not…Because we don’t do it…If they came to our show without knowledge, our show wouldn’t make any sense to them…So, they’re not getting their news from us, they’re coming to us to find out what the funny is on it.” 

“The Daily Show,” initially hosted by Craig Kilborn, originated as a commentary on popular culture and entertainment news. Only when Jon Stewart replaced Kilborn in 1999 did the show develop a poignant political fervor. The addition of Ben Karlin, former editor of The Onion (a derisive publication in its own right) as Executive Producer also helped shape the program as a political satire.

"The main thing, for me, is seeing hypocrisy. People who know better saying things that you know they don't believe,” said Karlin regarding his decision to adopt a political focus for the show.

Since the arrival of Stewart and Karlin, “The Daily Show” has won an impressive 13 Emmy awards. The success of the program encouraged Comedy Central executives to develop a spin-off featuring “Daily Show” correspondent Stephen Colbert.

The intent of “The Colbert Report” is to parody radically conservative pundit programs by mirroring the format of “The O’Reilly Factor.” The show presents Colbert as an ignorant neoconservative whose iconoclastic caricature serves to mock the extremist politics of right-wing zealots.

“The Colbert Report” immediately exploded in popularity upon its debut, receiving critical acclaim and developing a large, devoted fan base. The effects of the show have been remarkably wide spread; in 2006, Merriam-Webster declared “truthiness,” a term coined by Colbert, as the Word of the Year. In 2008, the American Political Science Association reported that Democratic politicians who appeared on the show consistently experienced a 40 percent increase in fiscal donations for the 30-day period following their appearance. Colbert’s fame even encouraged him to run as a Democratic candidate in the 2008 Presidential Election.

Indeed, “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are cleverly written satires that introduce comical, and often valid, perspectives on contemporary political issues. In fact, University of Pennsylvania Communications Professor Xiaoxia Cao found that “The Daily Show” can serve as a politically informative source for viewers who do not typically seek political knowledge:

“Exposure to ‘The Daily Show’ is positively associated with political knowledge on the part of audience members who normally do not consume traditional news,” said Cao, in his 2008 article, “Learning From Jon Stewart: How Soft News Programs Inform Infrequent Consumers of Traditional News.”

Results obtained by the Pew Research Center in 2007 regarding the effectiveness of soft news programs affirm Cao’s findings. According to Pew Research, viewers of “The Daily Show” demonstrate a higher political competency than consumers of other news outlets, traditional formats included. Almost 54 percent of “Daily Show” viewers scored in the “highly knowledgeable” range compared to 34 percent of conventional news consumers.

Consistent indulgence in “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” is also positively correlated with voter efficacy. Nearly 21 percent of voters in the 2004 Presidential Election claimed to have relied on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” as their primary source of political information, an exponential increase from prior elections. Indiana University’s Julia Fox summarizes this rising prevalence of soft news media as a result of generational trends:

“More than 20 million under-30 voters cast their ballots in the 2004 presidential election, marking the highest voter turnout for that age group in more than 12 years. As voter turnout among this age group increased, news sources of political information for these voters shifted away from the broadcast television networks and toward comedy programs such as ‘The Daily Show.”

In response to this increased reliance on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart remarked: “You just have to keep trying to do good work, and hope that it leads to more good work. I want to look back on my career and be proud of the work that I’ve done…. If I am able to positively affect the democratic process just by telling a few pointed jokes, I think I’m doing pretty well.”

“The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have been criticized for containing a recognizable liberal bias that arguably impedes their ability to deliver impartial news coverage. Admittedly, Stewart and Colbert blatantly preyed upon Republican incumbents for comic relief prior to Barack Obama’s victory in 2008:

"I think we consider those with power and influence targets and those without it, not," said Stewart. Similarly, Colbert commented that “We are liberal, but…if liberals were in power it would be easier to attack them…[however] Republicans have the executive, legislative and judicial branches, so making fun of Democrats is like kicking a child…it's just not worth it."

Yet despite accusations otherwise, Stewart has been an unequivocal critic of the Democratic Party since its rise to power. In an interview with Larry King in 2006, he lamented the ineffectiveness of the Congressional Democrats:

"I honestly don't feel that [the Democrats] make an impact. They have forty-nine percent of the vote and three percent of the power. At a certain point you go, 'Guys, pick up your game.”

The apparent ideological biases of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” do not have a discernable impact on the ability of the audience to absorb and comprehend political information. As Cao’s findings indicate, consistent viewers of soft news outlets are equally as informed about politics as non-viewers who rely solely on traditional news sources for obtaining political information. Such viewers, however, are much more inclined to develop a poignant ideological bias based on the nature of the information presented in soft news programs.

Soft news outlets are prone to the “Hostile Media Phenomenon,” coined by the Department of Communications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign as the tendency of unconventional news sources to exaggerate the degree of conflict present in the current political scheme. Such programs employ an “interview format wherein the interaction between host and guest provides ample comedy or conflict,” thereby antagonizing bipartisan animosity and disproportionately influencing audience perceptions of political turmoil. Viewers are subsequently discouraged and antipathetic toward contemporary politics, which confirms the findings of Baum’s study.

Characteristic of the Hostile Media Phenomenon is the tendency of viewers to “perceive neutral messages to be biased against their own position” when viewing programs that typically do not align with their beliefs. For example, devout followers of “The Daily Show” are more inclined to identify a conservative bias in “The O’Reilly Factor;” conversely, ardent fans of “The O’Reilly Factor” are more likely to discern a liberal bias in “The Daily Show.” Thus, viewers commonly seek programs that typically confirm their ideological beliefs. Kevin Coe of the University of Illinois summarizes this effect as a consequence of sociologic theory:

“Basic theory in intergroup relations suggests that people are motivated to protect their own groups. For example, social identity theory holds that individuals categorize themselves through membership in stratified groups, effectively contrasting their in-group with opposing out-groups. When faced with media content, then, in-group psychological processes can cause judgments of accuracy and bias to be made through a political lens, thereby resulting in greater sensitivity to ideological bias that is inconsistent with one’s own political views.”

Strikingly, CNN is perceived to have a stronger liberal bias than either “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report,” according to Western Kentucky University’s Joel Turner. Turner attributes this to the polarized demographics that soft news programs attract; viewers who identify as politically moderate are less likely to indulge in soft news programs and are more adept at perceiving bias in presumably objective traditional outlets.

“[Soft news outlets] send an ideological cue to the viewer regarding the content of the story. Audience members whose political views deviate from the partisan undertones are more aware of this fact; the effect is essentially subliminal for viewers whose ideology aligns with that of the respective medium.”

Conservative news programs are typically perceived as more ideologically saturated than liberal news outlets. According to Turner, almost twice as many viewers are able to identify a discernable partiality in “The O’Reilly Factor” versus “The Daily Show.”

Cosmopolitan sentiments and support for U.S. foreign policy is inversely related to soft news consumption, according to Baum’s “Circling the Wagons: Soft News and Isolationism in American Public Opinion.” Baum refers to this as the “Isolationist Hypothesis” and argues that “the style of coverage of soft news outlets tends to induce suspicion and distrust of a proactive of internationalist approach to U.S. foreign policy.” Subsequently, those viewers who are infrequent consumers of traditional news develop more polarized perspectives regarding international matters, usually in opposition to an aggressive foreign policy.

The ability to “selectively accept,” or “reject information inconsistent with preexisting attitudes,” is a direct product of a viewer’s political sophistication. Baum explains that “because they possess a broad range of political attitudes, highly politically aware individuals are better equipped to employ selective acceptance, given message reception, than their less aware counterparts, who possess fewer political attitudes upon which to draw.” Thus, soft news programs are more effective at inculcating ideologically-infused political information among less knowledgeable viewers.

The college-educated demographic is significantly less disenchanted by the misanthropic undertones of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Baum reports that “[those viewers] with less than a 12th grade education are nearly twice as likely as their college-educated counterparts…to develop a contemptuous view of the American political scheme.” Consequently, those viewers who have not pursued a college education are more inclined to submit to the alarmist indoctrination of soft news programs. Baum attributes this to the propensity of college-educated individuals to consume traditional news as a means of obtaining an impartial perspective on contemporary political events. Baum asserts that, “relative to traditional news outlets, soft news media place greater emphasis on dramatic, human-interest themes and episodic frames and less emphasis on knowledgeable information sources or thematic frames…which are much more adept at painting an accurate and holistic picture of the news. Viewers who specifically consume soft news unknowingly and inadvertently become pessimistic in regards to the future of American politics.”

More troublesome than the prevalence of ideological bias is the degradation of political incumbents that tends to reinforce viewer dissatisfaction with the current political scheme. Baum discovered in a 2005 study entitled “Issue Bias: How Issue Coverage and Media Bias Affect Voter Perceptions of Election” that “exposure to candidate interviews on [soft news] programs… have led apolitical voters to favor the candidate of the opposition party,” which is consistent with the findings of Baumgartner and Morris.

The ability of “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” to both inform and embitter viewers obscures their respective benefits to political media. The question as to whether soft news outlets are constructive and favorable sources of political information remains unanswered. However, soft news programs such as “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have demonstrated a remarkable ability to educate otherwise apolitical viewers, marking a shift in the nature of news consumption and sparking an increase in political involvement among younger generations.

In an air of irony, Stephen Colbert once exclaimed, “Jon always said 'The Daily Show' has no political impact...We're going to go ahead and pick up that gauntlet and change the world!”

So far, Colbert’s words have been resoundingly accurate.