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Study: Satirical news not without real-life political effects

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Trevor Noah hosts The Daily Show. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

While satirical news programs such as “The Daily Show” and “Last Week Tonight” air under the categories of comedy or entertainment, they could indeed shape the public’s political views.

A study conducted by Ohio State professor of communication Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick showed that satirical news can be used as a tool to engage those who normally would not be interested in politics. The study also showed that, much like traditional news, people tended to choose stories that affirmed their previously held beliefs.

Knobloch-Westerwick spoke of her interest in the phenomenon of confirmation bias, or how people tend to digest information that echoes their beliefs. She said her interest in the study lays in the question, “Is this different if we think it’s just entertainment, it’s just satire, it’s nothing serious?”

According to this study, whether or not news has an affirming effect does not seem to vary just because the story is given a satirical spin. In their study, Knobloch-Westerwick and graduate student Simon Lavis showed 146 college students of varying political backgrounds and political savvy levels multiple clips of real and satirical news on three contentious topics.

What they found was that students were, in general, more likely to choose to first watch the serious news story over its satirical twin. However, those who had reported they were less interested in politics tended to choose the satirical clips, as opposed to the more serious ones.

As well as becoming a mechanism to draw in people who don’t have a particular zeal for news, Knobloch-Westerwick said she hopes watching satirical news can be used to open people up to opposing viewpoints.

“From a democracy point of view, you want people to consider the other side of things,” Knobloch-Westerwick said.

The researchers also looked at the students’ political efficacy, or a person’s belief that they can make a political difference.

The students who identified as liberal had their confidence boosted after watching the liberal satire, while the more conservative students had the opposite effect when watching right-wing satire.

“The conservatives might just overall be less open to satire,” Knobloch-Westerwick said. “Satire might be something that’s more liberal, progressive, ‘Hey let’s question authority,’ kind of idea whereas conservatives don’t tend to question authority.”

The researchers had a much harder time finding conservative satire as well.

“It could simply be that at this stage in history, there’s not a body of conservative satire that conservatives can say ‘OK we recognize what this is,’” Lavis said.

Regardless of the type of news students consume, Lavis said it is important to stay informed and to have some amount of political efficacy.

“If you don’t feel that your voice matters and that you can make an impact, no matter how small it may be, then what tends to happen is you don’t vote,’” he said. “That’s the hard and fast reality of it.”

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