Friday, October 19, 2007

Stephen Colbert: the savior of democracy?

Continuing our completely serious and academic coverage of Stephen Colbert's candidacy in the South Carolina primary, Dr. Schaffner's post yesterday contained an implication that is worth exploring. Perhaps it's only worth exploring for those of us who are taking the political science master's comprehensive exam here at AU next week (as the recent studying for this exam is the only reason I am able to draw upon this literature), but I digress.

Summarizing a part of the Pew study, Dr. Schaffner pointed out that viewers of Colbert's show (and the Daily Show) on average are both younger and have more formal education than the wider population. Viewers of Colbert's show also scored better on the political knowledge test than other survey respondents. Further down in the study, we discover evidence for something we probably already assumed - that the audience of comedy news shows tends to be more Democratic than Republican. So the Pew study indicates a significant correlation between level of political knowledge and watching Colbert's show. We know that this correlation is positive - higher levels of knowledge are associated with the regular watching of the program. This begs the question, however - what is the causal relationship here? Which is the dependent variable? Do people watch Colbert's show because they are more politically aware, or are they more politically aware because they watch Colbert's show?

Dr. Schaffner (whether intentionally or not) seems to imply the former - that young, educated people watch Colbert's show because they are political informed. Politically informed citizens are more likely to consume news in general - they are more interested in it, and their interest puts them in the position to receive this information more often. These comments are in line with the narrative of the Pew study (after a quick review of it), as it also implies this causal relationship.

To someone who is busily studying for the Voting Behavior question on a poli sci master's comp, these implications loudly smack of...(drum roll please)...John Zaller, God of information processing (here is his book, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion). It's all part of Zaller's RAS model, which is a model that explains how individuals process information and form opinions (in my opinion, his model really only explains why people respond to survey questions the way they do - which is interesting and useful, but not necessarily generalizable to the greater opinion-forming process - but that's a post for another day). The first two axioms are relevant here. Zaller says that the first step to information processing is reception: the greater a person's level of cognitive engagement with an issue, the more likely they are to receive political messages concerning it. In other words, if a person is politically engaged, they are more likely to put themselves in the path of political messages - ie, more likely to turn on news, open a newspaper, read a blog, etc. Sounding familiar? Zaller's second axiom is also relevant: the resistance axiom says that, upon receiving political messages, people will resist arguments that are inconsistent with their political predispositions, but only when they know how to connect the messages to the predispositions. This has an interesting implication for Colbert's show specifically, because we could consider it to have a double message. For those who are knowledgeable enough to "get" Colbert's jokes, they receive his intended message of cynicism and criticism, and they watch it because they are inclined to agree. For those not knowledgeable in this area, they could conceivably receive the same messages that they would receive watching the shows that Colbert intends to mock.

Anyway, what if the causal relationship goes the other way? What if Colbert's viewers are more politically informed because they watch his show? I am a member of the "MySpace Generation" (though I prefer Facebook) who freely admits that often the Daily Show and Colbert Report are my only sources of news. And that admission is from someone who lives in DC and works in and studies politics. Of course, I have literature to site here as well. Matthew Baum suggests in his article "Sex, Lies, and War: How Soft News Brings Foreign Policy to the Inattentive Public" that "soft news" could be "democratizing" our political process. Baum does not mention comedy news shows in his description and definition of soft news - the article was published in 2002, using data from previous years, so it would have been too early for the rise in popularity of these shows. However, what else would we call shows like the Colbert Report? Baum's main definition of soft news is programming that people watch to be entertained. I would consider Colbert's show to fit this bill. After explaining the characteristics and pervasiveness of soft news, Baum shows that exposure to soft news is positively and significantly associated with attentiveness to political events (he looks specifically at foreign crises). His theory is that by reducing the cognitive costs of receiving and accepting (to use Zaller's terms) political messages, soft news is able to inform people who would otherwise not be informed. Hence the title of this post: are people like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart saviors of democracy, informing the masses with their humorous, yet still educational, programming? Or are people who are already educated flocking to these programs precisely because of their political awareness?

I have no doubt that any one of the staff members of CCPS would be more than happy to discuss this conundrum...say, with candidate Colbert, live on the Colbert Report? Just a thought....

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