Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Chickens and Eggs

From today's Des Moines Register:
Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" isn't "news" as most Americans know it. The Comedy Central show is a parody of the news. It pokes fun at journalists and politicians. It's entertainment.

But it's also influential.

Watching the show leads to an increase in cynicism about politics, according to research by Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris, political scientists at East Carolina University. They became interested in "The Daily Show Effect" after students were referencing the show during political-science classes. So they studied the effects of the show on college students and found watching it led to distrust of both the political system and news media. It can make viewers more cynical, according to Morris.

But that isn't necessarily a bad thing. "It's possible this could make young people more skeptical and less likely to be bamboozled," he said. . . .

How and where people get information about the world matters. Morris said other research he's conducted found viewers of Fox news tend to underestimate the number of dead in Iraq. It doesn't take a study for the average American to recognize the bias in so-called mainstream media - which may make Stewart, who tells it like it is, with humor, all the more appealing.

The show provides "entertainment that has information," Morris said. "They're getting information. They're learning."

And that can't be a bad thing.

I'm not so sure I buy the premise: the article appears to ignore the principle that correlation does not equal causality. So viewers of the Daily Show are intrinsically more distrustful of the government and the media. Does that mean that the show teaches cynicism, or is it because cynics happen to love Jon Stewart?

As I recall from communications studies classes a gagillion years ago, people have a general world view that is drawn from many sources - school, family, media, etc. But once the world view is formed, we have a tendency to retain information that conforms to our preconceptions, and forget or outright reject that information which is in direct conflict with our viewpoint. We make it fit, or forget it. When allowed a choice, then, I suspect we also tend to seek out news sources which agree with our world view, as those sources would hold more "useful" information. I'm no more surprised by the idea that many Daily Show viewers distrust the Bush administration than I am to hear that Fox News viewers generally underestimate the war in Iraq. It's intrinsic to the national divide in perspective, and natural they'd mistrust the 'other side' and seek out their own to receive news.

I agree cynicism is not a bad thing. A good thing would be to learn to watch both Fox and Stewart - and a bunch of other news sources with viewpoints all across the board - with cynicism and logic, finding truth wherever it lies.

Just a thought.

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