Does Satire News Influence Elections?

The idea that a satire news show would take election coverage so seriously no longer comes as a surprise. How did satire news become such a major player in news media? And, is its increased social power dangerous for our democracy?
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As Election Day looms, The Daily Show ramped up their media coverage by heading to Texas for a week of shows entitled Democalypse 2014: South by South Mess. A Comedy Central show relocated to broadcast on-the-spot election coverage. That should strike us as strange, right? But in all likelihood, it doesn't. The idea that a satire news show would take election coverage so seriously no longer comes as a surprise. How did satire news become such a major player in news media? And, is its increased social power dangerous for our democracy?

Let's start with the facts. Satire news today plays a major role in shaping voter perceptions. If you think back on recent election coverage, chances are that at least some of your memories of "news" coverage include satire. Maybe you recall The Daily Show's coverage of the Florida governor's race, John Oliver's mockery of the GOP efforts to rebrand, or Stephen Colbert's Twitter-mocking of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Maybe you read The Onion's piece "Midterm Candidates Distancing Selves from United States."

But beyond the anecdotal we now know that satire news is increasingly overtaking mainstream news as a source of voter information, especially for younger and left-leaning voters. A 2009 Rasmussen poll showed that nearly one-third of Americans under the age of 40 say satirical news-oriented television programs like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are taking the place of traditional news outlets. Further research by the Pew Research Center from 2012 showed that among younger millennial-aged voters satire news was not only more common, but also more trusted.

This trend has been surging over the last few elections. It's worth recalling that The Daily Show has gone on the road every two years either for coverage live from the Democrat and Republican conventions, or in midterm years, to locations they considered central to major races. They traveled to D.C. in 2002 and 2010, and visited the swing state of Ohio in 2006. On October 30, 2008 Stewart and Colbert held a pre-midterm rally on the National Mall that attracted a live audience of over 200,000 and 2.5 million live viewers.

There have been some extremely noteworthy satire moments in the last few elections: Who could forget the role that Colbert played in educating viewers on campaign finance by starting his own Super PAC and then encouraging his viewers to do the same? And then there was Tina Fey's impersonation of Sarah Palin that played a key role in drawing voters away from the McCain-Palin ticket. And it goes beyond the professional satirists too: average citizens are tweeting, facebooking, snapchatting, and creating satirical memes that often go viral. Entire twitter accounts, for instance, are satirical. The satirical Twitter feed for "Top Conservative Cat," who describes as a "Colbert conservative," has over 104,000 followers on Twitter.

This is all goes to show that satire is everywhere and that it's increasingly a part of the media diet of younger, more left-leaning voters. But this trend can't be good for our democracy, right? Satire is a form of mockery; it can't possibly teach voters how to respect the values at the core of our nation. If anything, the rise in satire is a sign of the demise of our nation. Or is it?

Actually, the rise in satire is a sign of the health of our democracy. And we have a range of data to prove it. First of all, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center has shown that viewers of programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report actually score higher for accuracy on current events than viewers of programs like The O'Reilly Factor or The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. They also score higher than viewers of cable news sources like CNN and Fox News. This research is backed by a number of other studies, including one by the Annenburg Public Policy Center that proved that Colbert's Super PAC stunt worked as a civics lesson.

Satire news has stepped up to help inform the electorate at a complex moment in news media history. The 24/7 television news cycle is now almost totally dominated by opinion, expert debates, punditry, and other forms of fluff that don't actually offer viewers much in terms of objective information. The result is that viewers that watch Fox News, for instance, are less informed about political information than viewers that watch no news at all. And, to make it worse, they are more likely to believe misinformation.

Young news consumers, in contrast, are more apt to question the source of their information and satire news viewers are more likely to trust Jon Stewart than Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC as a source of news. And this from voters that are reaching new lows in levels of trust in politicians, the media, and other authority figures. Too often television news today media packages information in stark oppositions that then allow "experts" to present opposite points of view. Often the oppositions are based on false binaries, faulty logic, or sheer hyperbole. Such a format does not enhance the critical thinking necessary for informed democratic participation.

Many often falsely blame the satirists for the state of news, when it is satire that simply comments on and calls attention to the flaws in our media and politicians. Satire trades in exposing falsehoods, mocking poor thinking, and laughing at folly. Satire works by asking the audience to think critically and to question the status quo. In this way, satirists like Stewart, Colbert, and Oliver function as a corrective for the sensational, often silly, news that is reported on cable television. If there were no flaws in the system, there would be nothing for them to mock.

And this is why the increased role of satire news in our democracy is a positive sign. For the first time in U.S. history a range of satirical news sources are providing the public with valuable information from which to make educated decisions. Our knowledge as voters may be coming from HBO and Comedy Central instead of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN, but the satire news is helping us stay informed and stay productively critical. Contrary to some criticism, satire's goal is not voter apathy; its goal is to encourage voters to turn their disgust into action and their frustrations into votes.

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