Last updated: June 3, 2010 - 12:48pm
[Commentary] What was the impact of shows like Jon Stewart's The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report on the health reform debate?
In our May tracking poll, 12% of the American people said they got information on health reform from shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (or their websites). The numbers were higher for college graduates (16%); higher still for 18-29 year olds (19%); and self-reported liberals (20% vs. 9% for conservatives). We also asked people what their "most important" source of information was on health reform. Cable TV news and their related websites topped the list, picked by 30%, followed by newspapers and their websites and friends and family at 12% and 11% respectively. (Note: some respected bloggers questioned whether this could be so given TV ratings data showing far fewer people tuned in to cable than, say, network news, but how frequently people view a news show and what they cite as their "most important" source of information on an issue can be very different things.) In any event, shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were picked by a tiny 1% as people's "most important" source of information. If that sounds very low, by comparison "your doctor or another health care professional" was picked by 3% (19% said they got some information on health reform from their doctor or a health professional). We also know from an earlier Time magazine poll conducted in October of 2008 that 11% of likely voters cited Stewart/Colbert as a "major source" of news about politics and current events, 25% as a "minor source", and 63% as "not a source." So what do numbers like these mean?
I suspect the 12% who cite Stewart and Colbert as a "source of information about health reform" is a real undercount; respondents may not think of these shows as providing "information" even if they get them to "think" about a subject like health reform or about government or politics. These shows are primarily viewed by people as entertainment. Also, the data should be viewed in the context of the changing information consumption habits of many Americans, especially younger people. They are fast becoming one-person-news-aggregators, pulling together what they see and learn from multiple websites and shows to form their own overall picture of issues and events (even if they seldom pick up a newspaper or watch broadcast news). For viewers what they see or learn on The Daily Show is a piece of a "daily" puzzle they assemble themselves. An unknown and I suspect very small percentage of people get their only exposure to information about current events from shows like The Colbert Report, or The Daily Show, or Real Time with Bill Maher, or the other late night shows. The shows engage this group in public affairs when they otherwise might not be engaged but may also fuel skepticism about government and our ability to solve problems as a country which polling suggests seems to be growing.
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