'The Daily Show' And 'The Colbert Report' May Be Why So Many More People Believe In Climate Change

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It may seem like a joke, but people take satirical news shows more seriously than we think. The U.S. Army, CC BY 2.0.

For all you skeptics out there who believe satirical news programs are good for nothing but making viewers laugh, the joke's on you, according to a new study from the University of Delaware.

Researchers have found Comedy Central classics The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have the power to influence their viewers' opinions on highly debated topics such as climate change. “These results dovetail with, while also extending, previous research showing that satirical television news can shape public opinion about other public affairs topics as well as attention to scientific and environmental issues, including climate change,” study authors Paul R. Brewer and Jessica McKnight wrote in their study.

When it comes down to it, researchers believe that satirical television may have more clout over public opinion as a result of how they frame controversial topics. For example, news programs will often “balance” coverage by hosting guests with opposing views, which is to say if they’re discussing the overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change, they will invite experts to challenge this idea.

“Thus, satirical television news coverage may offer counterpoints to climate change skepticism in public discourse and public opinion,” study authors explained. In other words, the satirical comedy is a little more blatant in stating their opinions.

For their study, the researchers recruited 424 young adults and asked them to watch 1-minute clips from one of the following programs: Finding Bigfoot (a control), The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. The first clip was from a 2013 episode of The Colbert Report where, in classic character fashion, former host Stephen Colbert used his conservative persona to mock anti-climate change perspectives by making them seem positively ridiculous.

“Folks, last week President Obama cynically used the inaugural address to push his radical prosurvival agenda,” he says in the clip below. The rest of the clip features Colbert describing why we should just give up on trying to solve climate change, and instead, “crawl into bed with a cheesecake and wait for death.”

The second clip was from a 2011 episode of The Daily Show where Jon Stewart, in a more direct but still entertaining manner, describes how research funded by oil industry tycoons actually proved the existence of climate change.

“Yes, the study funded by the Koch brothers confirms the original research was actually correct. The earth is getting warmer — or, judging by this graphic, getting more embarrassed,” he joked. The rest of the clip featured how disproving the 2009 scandal "Climategate" was overshadowed in the media by the reintroduction of McDonald's McRib.

The control Bigfoot clip was then shown, which had no mention climate change.

Researchers measured a half of point increase in certainty pertaining to climate change in those who saw the Colbert and Daily Show clips compared to those watching the control clip. Even more interesting was that this increased certainty was present among both liberals and conservatives. “The effects of the clips on certainty that global warming is happening did not vary across viewers’ political beliefs,” the researchers concluded.

The study did find, however, that conservatives watching Colbert’s clip believed his satire to be actual climate change denial. The co-authors suggested that conservatives interpreted “his ambiguous messages in ways that reflected their own ideological orientations.” On the other hand, those with liberal affiliations understood (and appreciated) the irony of Colbert’s statements.

It is hard to know for sure if satiral news makes people more likely to believe, but overall, this research proves that we should give satirical programs some more credit.

Source: Brewer P, McKnight J. Climate as Comedy: The Effects of Satirical Television News on Climate Change Perceptions. Science Communication. 2015.

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