In the pilot episode for The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert criticized books for being, "elitist — all fact, no heart." He went on to condemn "those who think with their heads," promising to "feel the news at you" instead of "reading the news to you."
Well, somewhere along the line some facts got into Colbert's program. In a 2014 study, The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that viewers of The Colbert Report were more knowledgeable about campaign finance than viewers of "every other news source." Colbert even mentioned the study on-air, apologizing for teaching his viewers the news.
This seems like the kind of study that you would dream up late at night at some bar on a college campus: Let's find out if "Colbert Report" viewers are smarter than others. Did you actually go out in search of that conclusion, or did you just throw "Colbert Report" in and were surprised by the findings?
No, this study was actually detailed and theorized going into the field. We were expecting to find this, because we know the literature on the use of narrative and humor, specifically in the classroom. There's a lot of work in education about this, and there is some past research just on Colbert viewers being more knowledgeable about other consumers, so we kind of expected to see this. What we didn't expect was that he was going to be the best out of every other news source.
Do you think that's because "The Colbert Report" attracts a certain kind of sophisticated audience, or because Colbert is imparting sophisticated information?
Well, it's a little bit of both, but we do control for certain characteristics of our samples, such as education, age, political involvement, and so on. So we actually kind of controlled that out. Even beyond the sophistication of the audience, Colbert is imparting knowledge. And the reason why we think this happens, and why he does a better job, is the way he uses narrative and humor to really detail a very complex process. The news organizations, using an inverted pyramid, really don't get at it.
Inverted pyramid being the kind of typical who, what, when, where way of telling a story?
Exactly: This is a super PAC, this is what they do. The end. With Colbert, we saw him in the process: he took us through every single step, and it was a narrative such that we tuned in the next day to see what was going to happen next. We were engaged and involved in the story.
What was it like to hear Colbert talk about your study on his show?
It was a great moment of pride, and it was exciting to be the researcher having your study about Colbert being featured on Colbert. The one thing that I did enjoy about his treatment of it was that he actually got to the nature of the problem that we're dealing with: the news media may not be doing the best job, or maybe not doing their job at all.
I had some other media interviews with people about the study, and with a lot of them the discussion focused on, Ha ha, funny man is telling us stuff, instead of the bigger picture that maybe the fourth estate — the news media — isn't really living up to their potential. We're turning to a satirist to give us information on something as important as campaign finance.
Do you think that satirical news has an inherent ability to actually do a better job than traditional news outlets? Is there a way that people engage with those stories differently than people who might just read a newspaper story?
It's precisely that level of engagement. When we are exposed to something that's funny, it usually catches us off-guard, and then we have to focus and figure out why that was funny and why it caught us off-guard. We're engaging with the material and that kind of engagement leads to retention of the information.
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