Trust in the media among Americans ages 18 to 49 declined between 1999 and 2015. That time period saw changes in media ownership and platforms, but it was also the duration of Jon Stewart’s tenure as host of Comedy Central’s news satire program The Daily Show.
Edo Steinberg, a doctoral candidate who studies humor, satire and political communication, presented his paper, “News You Can’t Use: An Examination of the Extent and Impact of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show Media Critiques,” at Friday’s research colloquium.
With the help of associate professor Julia Fox, Steinberg analyzed if and how Stewart influenced the public’s trust in the media.
They first did a content analysis of how Stewart criticized and made fun of the media. They looked at 100 episodes from the four presidential election years Stewart covered in his time at The Daily Show, focusing on the week before and after debates, because that is when media critiques were most common. Through his satire, Stewart highlighted the media’s bias, incompetence, inaccuracies and failed practice, as well as character flaws of individual media members.
After looking at these episodes, Fox and Steinberg found that the frequency of media critiques in Stewart’s broadcasts increased during the show’s 16-year run. In 2000, less than 10 percent of Stewart’s episodes included media criticisms, but in 2012, the media was at the butt of more than 60 percent of Stewart’s jokes. They also found that, through the years, Stewart criticized individual members of the media more frequently than he did an entire organization.
To understand how all of this influenced the audience’s perception of the media, Steinberg and Fox looked at these critiques in the context of the agenda-setting role of the media, which suggests that, if an issue is in the news more frequently, then the audience will consider that issue to be more important. They also applied what Steinberg described as “humor theory,” which considers how influential political humor is. As a result, Steinberg and Fox hypothesized that the more the media is undermined in satirical news programs like The Daily Show, the more the audience will view the media in a negative way.
They also considered the “media dependency theory,” which finds that people of different ages rely on the media in different ways. Steinberg said young people depended on the satire in Stewart’s broadcasts as a way to make sense of the world in the place of traditional news outlets. Older people didn’t depend on Stewart to make sense of their world; they looked to traditional organizations for that. They also understood the overall decline of news quality because they lived through it themselves.
To determine how these individual age groups were affected by Stewart, Fox and Steinberg examined Gallup polls assessing trust in media from before 1999, the year Stewart began his career at The Daily Show, and after 1999. Then they used a piecewise regression to look at the individual variables in their data more closely.
“Usually this method is used for analyzing public health interventions,” Steinberg said. “In this case, Jon Stewart was the public health intervention.”
Although they didn’t see a significant decline in the entire population’s trust in the media in their timeframe, Steinberg and Fox did see a significant decrease in media trust among 18- to 49-year-olds. Steinberg said this is consistent with the dependency theory that young people rely on the media for their opinions more than older people.
Steinberg and Fox acknowledge the study’s limitations. The Gallup polls they used did not specifically look at The Daily Show, so it is difficult to make a direct correlation between media perception and Stewart. Also, the media grew more fragmented and started shifting online during the 1990s and 2000s, which also could have contributed to this decline in trust.
“This study is meant to be provocative,” Fox said.
However, it is also meant to reveal the influence satirical news programs have on the public. This influence is also going to continue to grow as this style of reporting becomes more popular, Steinberg explained.
“The people who graduated from The Daily Show are now hosting their own news shows,” said Steinberg, referring to popular satirists like Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert. “It will be interesting to see how Jon Stewart’s successors continue the trend of criticizing the media and how that influences us in the future.”