Late-night learning: do entertainment programs increase political campaign knowledge for young viewers?

Author:Hollander, Barry A.

The fragmenting mass media environment has created a host of new ways people say they learn about public affairs. In the early 1990s, researchers explored the role of the "new news" in U.S. politics, particularly the influence of talk radio (Hollander, 1994, 1995). An emerging body of scholarly work has expanded this analysis to entertainment-based television and how it affects political perceptions and knowledge. The scope ranges widely to include television talk shows (Prior, 2003), dramas such as The West Wing (Holbert, Pillion, et al., 2003; Parry-Giles & Parry-Giles, 2002; Rollins & O'Connor, 2003), situation comedies (Holbert, Shah, & Kwak, 2003), police dramas (Holbert, Shah, & Kwak, 2004), and the political content of late-night comedy shows (Moy, Xenos, & Hess, 2004; Niven, Lichter, & Amundson, 2003; Parkin, Bos, & van Doom, 2003).

Among the concerns is whether entertainment programs actually inform viewers, specifically younger people who may get their news from late-night television hosts such as Jay Leno or comedy programs like The Daily Show. Anecdotal evidence and surveys suggest that for many young people, such programs and their hosts are perceived as vital sources of political information and news (Pew Research Center, 2000, 2002, 2004). Not everyone is convinced, especially Stewart, the host of The Daily Show. "I still think that's a fallacy that they get most of their news from us," Stewart told television critics (McFarland, 2004, [paragraph] 14).

Not all knowledge is the same. Whether viewers of entertainment-based programs learn about public affairs is reminiscent of earlier concerns about the informative power of television news as compared to print sources, most often newspapers. Shoemaker, Schooler, and Danielson (1989) argued that medium differences and their subsequent effects were best addressed through understanding the differences between recall versus recognition of political information. This position is echoed by those who examined the differential effects of intentional and incidental exposure to information (Eagle & Leiter, 1964; Stapel, 1998). In brief, what viewers glean from such programs may be a function of many factors: the cognitive effort expended, political interest and sophistication, and exactly what kind of knowledge is tapped in surveys or questionnaires. This study presents two tests of knowledge--recall and recognition--and argues that entertainment-based programs are better suited for the latter in terms of understanding what they contribute to a viewer's public affairs knowledge, particularly for younger viewers.

Political Knowledge

An enlightened citizenry remains one of the foundations of a successful and thriving democracy, and yet the U.S. public is relatively uninformed about their political world (Bennett, 1996). Despite advances in education and an exploding number of available news sources, scholars have discovered no corresponding increase in political knowledge (Neuman, 1986; Smith, 1989). As Delli Carpini and Keeter (1992) noted: "To say that much of the public is uninformed about much of the substance of politics and public policy is to say nothing new" (p. 19).

Measures of newspaper use are often associated with political knowledge (Becker & Dunwoody, 1982; Chaffee & Tims, 1982; Chaffee, Zhao, & Leshner, 1994; Pettey, 1988; but see also Weaver & Drew, 1995). Exposure to or reliance on television news has not fared as well (Becker & Whitney, 1980; Patterson & McClure, 1976), although a few studies have uncovered a positive relationship (e.g., Zhao & Chaffee, 1995). To make sense of these findings, some have suggested that how people orient toward a medium (McLeod & McDonald, 1985), attend to a medium (Chaffee & Schleuder, 1986), or involve themselves with a medium (Shoemaker et al., 1989) can mask the existence of positive effects on knowledge. These approaches are similar to that of Salomon's (1983) position that people assess the amount of cognitive effort necessary for a particular medium and expend only that amount, with television perceived as requiring the least amount of effort and therefore leading to reduced learning as compared to print, which is perceived to require greater mental effort. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy, with print information generating superior learning as compared to television or video presentations.

Taken together, these studies suggest that measures of recall alone may not be sensitive enough to uncover the effects of televised entertainment-based programming, intention to learn or attention to a message is often associated with superior recall, whereas incidental exposure to a message leads to greater recognition of information (Beals, Mazis, Salop, & Staelin, 1981; Eagle & Leiter, 1964; Stapel, 1998). When involvement is high, measures of recall perform best, but in situations in which only marginal interest exists, recognition is often the best measurement strategy (Singh & Rothschild, 1983). Thus, television is ill suited for measures of recall as compared to print. Some argue the differences lie in left-brain versus right-brain processing, in which print learning is best tapped by asking recall questions and television learning is best tapped by recognition questions (Krugman, 1977, but see du Plessis, 1994, for an alternate view).

Entertainment Media and Politics

This discussion is particularly apt when considering the emergence of entertainment-based media as a form of political communication. Indeed, interpersonal conversations now rely on the fictional television content in addition to news as people make sense of their social and political world (Delli Carpini & Williams, 1996). Popular late-night and comedy programs have taken an increasingly political bent, with the number of political jokes on late-night TV steadily rising from 1989 to 2000 (Parkin et al., 2003). Thus, the audience is exposed to campaign politics and public affairs as part of the entertainment whole, but the quality of the information remains in doubt. Late-night humor's focus on the presidency and presidential candidates, for example, rarely includes issue content and instead highlights the miscues of political actors (Niven et al., 2003). The audience of such entertainment-oriented talk shows and comedy programs is often less educated and interested in politics than the mainstream news audience (Davis & Owen, 1998; Hamilton, 2003), suggesting viewers less capable of making sense of the political content. Indeed, in an examination of talk radio, Hollander (1995) found that among less educated listeners, exposure to such programs led to a sense of feeling informed but was unrelated to actual campaign knowledge. Among listeners of greater education, talk radio exposure was related to both the feeling of being informed and campaign information holding, suggesting that greater cognitive...

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