Much has been made in recent years of the phenomenon of the “comedy news show” format.
Several shows, such as the long-running Daily Show and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, have become non-traditional hits, and the careers of comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been built primarily on their tenures as hosts of these comedy news shows.
These shows often present themselves in the manner of a standard news commentary show (such as The O’Reilly Factor or The Rachel Maddow Show) and take a satirical, sarcastic view of current events around the world, from American politics to global relations. Some, such as Last Week Tonight, often dedicate entire segments spotlighting a specific phenomenon or issue in modern society, such as student loans, standardized testing, and so on.
All well and good, except for the fact that for some Americans, these shows are the most reliable source of news available to them. In 2014, the Pew Research Center released a study revealing that males age 18 to 29 were more likely to trust Colbert’s former Comedy Central program, The Colbert Report, for political news. Likewise, in the same year, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that viewers of the Report were better informed abut the role of political action committees (PACs) in the 2012 election than those who preferred other sources of media.
Despite their role as purveyors of information, several, such as John Oliver, adamantly consider themselves comedians first, rather than journalists.
“I’ve never felt like a journalist, [but] I’ve dressed like one,” Oliver said in a 2015 interview with Canadian newspaper The National Post. “No, I feel like a comedian. A journalist has to be entirely credible and fact-based; I choose to be.”
The fact remains that whether they claim themselves to be or not, these people are, in some form or another, journalists. They may present the news as something to make light of, but they still provide their viewers (in many cases) the unadulterated facts of a situation, warts and all.
The question remains, however: why are they so trusted?
It is possible that the reason for their comparatively high regard in the media is the fact that they make no secret about being opinionated. While the mainstream media is often accused of hiding bias one way or another while trying to be at least nominally impartial, the likes of Colbert and Oliver have no such obligation to traditional journalistic standards. Instead, they are free to offer their own, mostly unfiltered opinions on topics, rather than having to couch it in false neutrality as some believe the media does.
Another possible suspect is the ever-present specter of “fake news.” With more and more Americans becoming aware of sites that provide false or heavily manipulated information for the sole purpose of garnering views, people are turning to sources where they know they will receive the actual facts, even if in a decidedly non-serious light. With the internet becoming filled with misleading sites and articles, viewers may feel more comfortable trusting people who are at least honest about their bias.
Whatever the reason, it is clear that the phenomenon of comedy journalism is not going anywhere anytime soon, especially with a newly inaugurated president whose penchant for rambling is exceeded only by his hair-trigger temper. If nothing else, Oliver and company will not be running out of material for the foreseeable future.