In high school, I spent the majority of my days gazing longingly out of the hazy windows, wishing I could leave, or at least play kickball with the kids in gym class. My interest in Huckleberry Finn barely surpassed my interest in imaginary numbers, and I certainly did not plan on batting an eye for politics. Despite my predisposition to boredom, I walked into a civics class one day to see Tina Fey impersonating Sarah Palin. Before I knew it, I was immersed in a new world of issues and candidates that represent our country. Certainly Tina Fey’s impersonation did not fill me in on everything, but it definitely caught my attention, and I am not alone.
Statistics found in a 2004 study conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 61 percent of people ages 18 to 29 reported that they sometimes receive presidential campaign news from television comedy programs. No doubt, infotainment is a rising phenomenon, especially for young people. “Infotainment” is a concept in which the lines between news and entertainment become one. Even with infotainment’s popularity, it seems fewer young people turn to other sources like newspapers or local news every day. Can infotainment fill the gap for hard news?
Issue-centered hard news, like newspapers, local news networks, and political talk radio, bring people the most accurate representations of both sides of an issue, but the use of these sources is declining. This drop in ratings causes previously traditional news sources to turn to thematic content to boost ratings, while entertainment shows like late-night comedy are constantly taking on topics of political affairs that make them more relevant to users. The content is adapted to catch audiences’ attention with emotional appeals intended to attract people with particular beliefs, identities, and preferences. Most notably is the way these shows focus humor on individual politicians rather than issues. The complete lack of issue-centered information given on these shows questions the effects of Americans’ new reliance on them for political information.
A 2005 study conducted by scholars at the University of Washington, examined data from the 2000 National Annenberg Election Survey to determine the effects of exposure of late-night comedy on various forms of citizenship such as voting, contacting an official, writing a letter to the editor, making financial contributions, and participating in the campaign. The study also asked participants about the frequency with which they had discussed politics with friends, family, employees, or online correspondencies in the past week. This interpersonal discussion gives citizens the opportunity to learn to defend their own positions and see others’ points of view, while also increasing the number of informed citizens. The survey found late- night comedy watching was common in younger respondents and those unmarried or full time unemployed. It also found that both intend to vote, and political discussion was associated with infotainment exposure, but positive association was mostly prevalent for those viewers who were already politically sophisticated. As expected, late-night comedy is reaching a young audience and it does increase levels of involvement, however; only for those who were politically engaged in the first place. The findings are not surprising since someone who has no previous understanding of politics would not likely find political jokes amusing, and therefore would not be impacted by the content of those jokes. However, while the study makes a direct correlation from infotainment exposure to political involvement, it does not address the content of infotainment, or how that content affects the reasons behind votes or the content of people’s political conversation.
As previously mentioned, analysis of infotainment shows it is largely void of logical issue related information, and instead relies on individual and emotional appeal. For example, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly relies largely on name-calling and reduces issues to a good vs. evil view which robs viewers of valuable perspective and waters everything down to easy-to-follow narratives. The “us vs. them” mentality that reduces highly charged political issues to simply poking fun at candidates implies that viewers likely use infotainment simply to reinforce already held beliefs, rather than to glean new understanding or perspective. However, this view does not explain why the political involvement of some was enhanced by infotainment. Indeed, despite infotainment’s narrow perspective, the way satirical comedy covers appropriate news footage from traditional sources to create new messages with opposite meanings, it still serves to challenge the standards and strategies of traditional media.
Perhaps, then, infotainment’s effects on viewers depend on the viewers’ motives. A politically engaged person would anticipate having conversations about politics with other people and would scrutinize political information from both traditional news and infotainment in order to be able to defend arguments and recall information. Further, political discussion would encourage individuals to participate in activities beyond mere political awareness. Hence, the University of Washington study found that infotainment encouraged political involvement in politically sophisticated individuals. However, politically inattentive viewers do not use infotainment for political awareness, but rather for mere relaxation or entertainment. Therefore, they do not glean new understanding of politics and are no more motivated toward civic participation.
In a world where media standards are changing, the responsibility of the consumer is growing rapidly. While hard news ratings continue to fall, media cannot be blamed for conforming to connect to audiences. Now more than ever, individuals must seek out reliable information, question media motives, and challenge their own beliefs.
Joy Wilson is a fourth-year student majoring in communications. She can be reached at JW794401@wcupa.edu.