The idea of measuring something as squishy as “play” or “connection” might send quantitative scholars running. However, several recent studies suggest that these outcomes are real and can be captured through innovations in measurement and analysis.
For a forthcoming article in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, my colleague Paul Brewer and I looked at how college students’ prior exposure to The Colbert Report affected their later exposure to traditional news stories. Participants read news stories about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and super PACs, a topic with which Colbert dealt extensively over a period of months on his program. They were randomly assigned either a story that mentioned Colbert’s super PAC, a news story about super PACs that did not mention Colbert, or a control. What we found, among other things, was that those students who were avid viewers of The Colbert Report in real life experienced dramatic increases in their sense of political efficacy when exposed to traditional news stories about super PACs (regardless of whether those stories mentioned Colbert). Their prior exposure to The Colbert Report armed them with information and awareness that made them feel more confident in their ability to navigate our complicated political world.
Another soon-to-be-released study that I conducted of college students’ reasons for watching (or avoiding) shows like The Daily Show and Colbert suggests that viewers’ uses for these programs do not fit neatly into an entertainment-or-information dichotomy. While some viewers reported watching The Daily Show and Colbert as “sources” of news, or as “sources” of laughter, a large proportion of respondents said they watched the shows to find the humor or joy in information they had obtained elsewhere. Similarly, a smaller contingent of respondents reported using The Daily Show and Colbert as sources of context to help them create meaning out of information they already had.
And in a forthcoming article in American Behavioral Scientist, my coauthors and I argue that as the possibilities for political entertainment expand, our age-old measures of the effects of political and media satire are ill-suited to capture the significance of what is going on around us. Consider the proliferation of viral videos and online political memes during the 2012 presidential campaign. The explosive popularity of memes like the Tumblr “Texts from Hillary,” or the candidate videos from “Bad Lip Reading,” speaks to the resonance of entertaining political content. These memes and videos do not necessarily make an explicit political argument, nor do they necessarily provide political information in the traditional sense. But they clearly matter to people. They provide a state of play where the audience can engage with public officials, political issues, or events, and not feel judged or inadequate in their ability to understand what’s going on.
And most important: This playful space isn’t a realm that exists separate from politics; for most people, this is politics.
Why are we afraid to tear down these boundaries?
Our reluctance to make political discourse more accessible stems, in part, from elitist notions of who should be allowed to sit at the political table. I remember watching Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher in 1999. As an appropriately trained political science graduate, I hated this show, almost to the point of finding it morally offensive. Who are these cracker jacks? What right do these comedians and B-list actors have to talk about abortion or gun control? As I read more of Jeffrey Jones’s work, though, in which he highlights Politically Incorrect as an example of inclusive, non-elite political discourse, I had to acknowledge that my contempt for Maher’s show probably said far more about me and my formal political-science training than it did about the show’s value. Actual democratic discourse requires that even the cracker jacks be invited to the table.
There are also Mugwumpian concerns among political communication scholars and political journalists about the vulnerability of the public: those poor, unprotected masses. The rather paternalistic fear is that if we allow political decision-making to become driven primarily by emotions, rather than careful thought and analysis, it will be far easier for the public to be manipulated by powerful interests and its own base instincts.
Leaders have always capitalized on emotions, of course. Today’s politicians and operatives routinely appeal to things like patriotism, fear—even “hope and change”—to mobilize and persuade voters.
On one level, this fear of emotional politics makes sense. History is full of extreme examples of what can go wrong when the masses are politically stirred through emotional appeals. Think Hitler, the KKK, the Salem witch trials.