The Substance of Fake News

What Everyone Is Talking About

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NEW YORK ( -- Can it be true? Can we get our ice cream and our spinach all in one lovely meal? Apparently so. Since the 2004 election, pundits have lamented that a certain desirable swath of viewers more regularly watched "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" than the evening news broadcasts. The worry was that this would be a generation so infused with irony that it would remain disengaged and cynical about the political process. And worse, they would be disengaged because they were misinformed, as their primary news source was a comedy show that they actually found more credible than real news. But thanks to an Indiana University professor's new research, some of those fears can be put to rest.
Jon Stewart is now officially your spinach-and-ice-cream combo meal.
Jon Stewart is now officially your spinach-and-ice-cream combo meal. Credit: Comedy Central

The study, by Julia R. Fox, assistant professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, is titled "No Joke: A Comparison of Substance in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Broadcast Network Television Coverage of the 2004 Presidential Election Campaign." It will be published next summer by the Journal of Broadcast and Electronic Media.

"It is clearly a humor show, first and foremost," Ms. Fox said. "But there is some substance on there, and in some cases -- like John Edwards announcing his candidacy -- the news is made on the show. You have real newsmakers coming on, and yes, sometimes the banter and questions get a little silly, but there is also substantive dialogue going on. ... It's a legitimate source of news."

Newsmakers do indeed show up on the "Daily Show." Most notably, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf sat down with Mr. Stewart to discuss his new book, but in recent weeks other politicos to have endured the "Seat of Heat" included Republican Sen. Trent Lott, former President Bill Clinton, former Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey (whom apparently even David Letterman couldn't get).

While a second-by-second analysis of "The Daily Show's" audio and visual content found considerably more humor than substance, Ms. Fox's study found that a similar analysis of network newscasts found more hype than substance in their content. ("Hype" included things such as references to polls, political endorsements and photo opportunities.)

"Interestingly, the average amounts of video and audio substance in the broadcast network news stories were not significantly different than the average amounts of visual and audio substance in 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' stories about the presidential election," the study found. "It should be noted that the broadcast-network-news stories about the presidential election were significantly shorter, on average, than were 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart' stories," Ms. Fox added. "The argument could be made that while the amount of substance per story was not significantly different, the proportion of each story devoted to substance was greater in the network-news stories. ... On the other hand, the proportion of stories per half-hour program devoted to the election campaign was greater in 'The Daily Show.'"

Still, when it comes to one's news diet, you shouldn't depend on any one source for all your informational needs. As Ms. Fox notes, "In an absolute sense, we should probably be concerned about both of those sources, because neither one is particularly substantive. It's a bottom-line industry and ratings-driven. We live in an 'infotainment' society, and there certainly are a number of other sources available."
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