The 'Daily Effect': Cynical, Yet Informed

According to a new study, watching the Comedy Central political humor show The Daily Show makes college students more cynical about politics, but more confident about what they know. Professor Jody Baumgartner of East Carolina University, one of the authors of the study, talks with Debbie Elliott about the "Daily Effect."

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THING CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. Comedy shows like The Daily Show with John Stewart are increasingly popular way for young people to get their news. That's got political scientists wondering how such programs influence political attitudes. And a recent study did uncover a so-called Daily Effect. East Carolina University professor Jody Baumgartner is one of the researchers and joins us now. Hello there.

Professor JODY BAUMGARTNER (East Carolina University): Hi.

ELLIOTT: What did you find?

Prof. BAUMGARTNER: We found that the people who were exposed to the Daily Show were more likely to say they trusted different government institutions less. And we also found, interestingly, that these same students who viewed the Daily Show who trusted government less were more likely to report that they had greater confidence in their own ability to understand politics.

ELLIOTT: Now, it's not clear from the study whether you think that these findings reflect that watching The Daily Show is a good thing or a bad thing. Which is it?

Prof. BAUMGARTNER: Well, it's not clear from the study because we're not clear. And when I say that, what I mean to say is that political science research tells us that people who are more confident in their own ability to understand and engage in politics, they will participate more. There is no question about that. It's less clear what kind of consequences greater cynicism has on political participation. There's certainly stuff out there that suggests if people get too cynical, that they may just disengage. They may become alienated and completely disengage. But we don't actually go that far in our study.

ELLIOTT: Is a lack of trust in political institutions necessarily a bad thing for democracy?

Prof. BAUMGARTNER: No, not necessarily. It's absolutely true that being somewhat skeptical is actually kind of a requirement for a democratic citizen, right? The question becomes when do we hit a level of cynicism that turns us off to the process completely and makes us - leads us to disengage.

ELLIOTT: Why do you think that watching The Daily Show led some of these students to have more confidence in their political intelligence? Do you think they are actually learning more about the political system by watching this program?

Prof. BAUMGARTNER: We in sort of a post hoc way have theorized that it's got something to do with the process by which people actually get the joke. As Stewart leads you through this thing and eventually gets you to the point where you get the joke, it's akin to having someone explain it to you. It's certainly not the same process. But in the end, you've gotten the joke and you feel validated and you walk away, subconsciously anyway, thinking that you do understand something about what he is talking about.

ELLIOTT: I understand that one of John Stewart's books is actually on your required reading list for political science students.

Prof. BAUMGARTNER: I'm just a little surprised that you knew that. That's not in the study. We experimented this summer, having students read a regular, sort of stock issue American government textbook, and as the companion to it, we asked them to read the Stewart textbook - it's America: The Book - in the belief that if they read Stewart and they found it funny and stimulating and engaging, they might sort of be more apt to read a little more carefully the other book.

The assignment, for example, would be that everybody come in and talk about one part of the chapter where Stewart got it almost right and be able to reference the normal textbook, the regular textbook in that discussion.

ELLIOTT: Did it work?

Prof. BAUMGARTNER: They definitely liked it and everybody would get involved, so that worked very well, I thought.

ELLIOTT: Professor Baumgartner, have you heard from John Stewart since you published this study?

Prof. BAUMGARTNER: We have not, we have not.

ELLIOTT: Jody Baumgartner is a professor of Political Science at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, and co-author of The Daily Show Effect: Candidate Evaluations, Efficacy and American Youth. It was published in the academic journal American Politics Research. Thanks so much for talking with us.

Prof. BAUMGARTNER: Thank you very much.

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