Stewart Over Substance

(CBS)
Jon Stewart, and most things "Daily Show"-related, are catnip for the media. Stewart's 2004 assault on CNN's "Crossfire" was big news. And the apparently substantial influence that "The Daily Show" has over the news consuming habits of our nation's youth (the kids, the young people) is always a notable topic. A study this summer on "The Daily Show Effect," which suggested that the program contributes to college students' cynicism about politics, generated fair amount of buzz. A study two years earlier, which revealed that almost a quarter of people 18-29 got the bulk of their political campaign news from "The Daily Show" and "Saturday Night Live," also had everyone in a tizzy.

The latest Stewart study to gain headlines hasn't even been published yet, but a press release is out for an Indiana University study (to be published next summer by the Journal of Broadcast and Electronic Media) that says news coverage on "The Daily Show" is as substantive as that of the network news broadcasts. Naturally, it's getting some attention already. "While much has been written in the media about The Daily Show's impact," says the release, "[Assistant Professor of Telecommunications Julia R.] Fox's study is the first scholarly effort to systematically examine how the comedy program compares to traditional television news as sources of political information."

IU's media representative e-mailed us a copy of the study, which "analyzed coverage of the 2004 national political conventions and the first presidential debate by the networks and Stewart's program." The conclusion is, basically, that the network broadcasts emphasize hype over substance about the same amount as "The Daily Show" emphasizes humor over substance. So neither program is particularly substantive. You may be wondering, then, how the study defines "substantive." Here's how the study describes it:
"substantive coverage, as a meta-concept, is categorized by the concepts of campaign issues and candidate qualifications while hype, as a meta-concept, is categorized by the concepts of horserace and hoopla. Indicators of campaign issues are references to or images of issues included in the party platforms such as defense and security, the economy, the environment, education, health care, and crime. Indicators of candidate qualifications are references to or images of the candidates' experience, such as political accomplishments and political positions held. Indicators of horserace are references to or images of the campaign contest, such as who's ahead and behind in the polls, campaign strategies and tactics, and political endorsements. Indicators of hoopla are references to or images of activities and items related to campaign events and their trappings, such as photo opportunities, rallies, flag waving, hand shaking, baby kissing, ball throwing, crowds, balloons, and celebrities.
So essentially, this study quantifies a criticism that has long been floating around about network news coverage of political campaigns and elections – the focus remains on "horserace and hoopla" more than substantive stuff like issues and candidate qualifications. Groundbreaking news? Not exactly. Fox notes as much in the release: "'We've been wringing our hands for decades that the networks aren't doing enough substance in the political coverage, so is it any real surprise that it's just as substantive?' Fox said of The Daily Show." No, it isn't. So maybe it's not such a bad thing that all the kiddos are getting their news from Jon Stewart? Said Fox: "Our findings should allay at least some of the concerns about the growing reliance on this non-traditional source of political information, as it is just as substantive as the source that Americans have relied upon for decades."

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