Example #1 – Viewers of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Score High on News Knowledge

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A few weeks ago, perusing Internet news, you might have seen an article stating,”Pew Survey: Viewers of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Score High on News Knowledge“.  The author of the article is a guy by the name of Greg Mitchell.  In the “report”, Greg goes on to claim that people who watch shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, “are more knowledgeable about current events (as judged by three test questions) than watchers of ‘real’ cable news shows hosted by Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly and Larry King, among others — as well as average consumers of NBC, ABC, Fox News, CNN, C-SPAN and daily newspapers.”

Wow!  What a revelation!  You mean two different comedy shows provide more information than all those networks?

This is the part where I back up the truck, just a tad.  There are a few key things missing from the article I cited.

But hey, let me give you the full text of  Mitchell’s article:

NEW YORK The results of the new Pew Survey on News Consumption (taken every two years and released this afternoon) suggest that viewers of the “fake news” programs “The Daily Show”and “The Colbert Report” are more knowledgeable about current events (as judged by three test questions) than watchers of “real” cable news shows hosted by Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly and Larry King, among others — as well as average consumers of NBC, ABC, Fox News, CNN, C-SPAN and daily newspapers.

The national average for answering the three questions was only 18%. But 34% of The Colbert Report fans got them right, with 30% of The Daily Show viewers doing so – even though the two Comedy Central shows draw younger audiences which generally scored less well on the “test” than older viewers/readers.

The Pew Report observed: “The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are notable for having relatively well-informed audiences that are younger than the national average.”

Topping the knowledge list were The New Yorker and The Atlantic (48%), NPR (44%), MSNBC’s Hardball (43%), and Hannity & Colmes at 42%.

While consumers of most news outlets scored poorly on the test, a separate question revealed that a vast majority believe they follow national news closely.

Respondents were asked to identify which party now controls Congress, who is the current U.S. secretary of state and name the new prime minister of Great Britain.

Coming in behind the two fake news show on the test were consumers of :

News magazines 30%
O’Reilly Factor 28%
Lou Dobbs Tonight 27%
C-SPAN 24%
Daily newspaper 22%
NBC News 21%
Letterman/Leno 20%
Larry King Live 19%
ABC News 19%
CNN 19%
Fox News 19%
CNBC 17%
Personality magazines 13%
Religious radio 12%
CBS News 10%
National Enquirer 9%

Looks impressive, right?  All those figures, numbers, percentages giving justification to the title of the report?

What’s missing is a little thing called “context”.

First, if you’ve never seen The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, they’re mock news reports with a satirical edge, and a left-leaning message.  Sometimes they go after liberals, but most of the time they’re pounding away on conservatives.  So now you know where the message is coming from.  Most importantly, these are not shows that put news out every day, or even every week.  They’re just like sitcoms: they only do so many shows, after which the network will show reruns until a new batch of shows is produced.

Given this fact, you might be wondering how shows that don’t stay current through a good portion of the year are able to provide relevant information to their audiences.  It’s a reasonable question to ask.  Could it be that people who watch shows like The Colbert Report generally keep themselves more informed than those who don’t?  Maybe.  It’s a possibility.

I managed to find the PEW research poll online, and did a little investigation.  The poll itself is kind of like an analysis of viewing habits across the board – posting statistics on where people get their news information, who watches what, age demographics, and so on.  The poll itself is rather large, and through most of it, guys like Jon Stewart aren’t even mentioned.  I think you have to go about eight pages into the survey to find the following section:

Knowledgeable News Audiences

Regular readers of magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s Magazine stand out for their political knowledge; almost half (48%) can correctly identify Rice, Brown and the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives. NPR listeners rank closely behind, with 44% of regular listeners registering a high knowledge score. More than four-in-ten regular Hardball (43%) and Hannity & Colmes (42%) viewers also score relatively high for political knowledge.

In general, well-educated news audiences have high levels of political knowledge; for instance, 54% of regular readers of publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper’s Magazine are college graduates, as are 54% of regular NPR listeners. However, a greater proportion of regular readers of business magazines are college graduates (60%), but just 36% answered all three political knowledge questions correctly.

Just a third of regular Rush Limbaugh listeners are college graduates, but this audience scored as well on political knowledge as did regular business magazine readers. Similarly, only about three-in-ten (31%) regular Hannity & Colmes listeners are college graduates, but a relatively large proportion (42%) answered all three questions correctly.

Some highly knowledgeable and attentive news audiences – such as The New Yorker’s, Limbaugh’s, Hannity & Colmes’ or Hardball’s – are older than average. However, age is not always a correlate of political knowledge: the CBS Evening News has one of the oldest audiences of the news outlets included on the survey; 63% of the regular viewers of this program are 50 or older. But just 10% of regular CBS News viewers correctly answered the three questions.

The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are notable for having relatively well-informed audiences that are younger than the national average: 34% of regular Colbert viewers answered the three political knowledge questions correctly, as did 30% of regular Daily Show viewers. Less than a quarter of either audience is older than 50 (22% Colbert, 23% Daily Show), compared with 41% of the general public.

Now, after reading this, do you get the same impression as you did reading Mitchell’s article?  Granted The Colbert Report and The Daily Show are mentioned, but only because they are a bit of an anomaly.  These are not news shows at all, but are considered entertainment.

Notice something else?  The poll states that this section gauged political knowledge.  Where in Mitchell’s  article is that expressed?  I’ll give you a hint: nowhere.  Remember, Mitchell made a big deal of the Colbert and Stewart audiences as being “knowledgeable about current events”, not political figures – a key distinction.

What’s more obscene about this is that in the the Mitchell article, content is not compared between an outlet like CNN and The Daily Show.  CNN itself covers a wide variety of national news, whereas shows like The Colbert Report only really tackle politics.  Is any of that insight provided in Mitchell’s article?  No.  On the same note, guys like Bill O’Reilly (The O’Reilly Factor) do not always dwell on politics.  O’Reilly tackles an number of social issues including abused and murdered children, challenges to America’s traditional culture, and so on.  So, when Mitchell goes around saying that guys like Jon Stewart basically provide more knowledgeable information (without using the caveat of “political information”), he is doing an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Does Greg Mitchell know this?  My gut feeling is that he does.  But the possibility exists that he’s just basically clueless.  Maybe he’s just trying to suck up to the “cool kids” so he can get Jon Stewart’s autograph.

What is interesting are the number of “conservative” shows that outdid both The Colbert Report (34%) and The Daily Show (30%) namely: The Rush Limbaugh Show (36%) and Hannity and Colms (42%).  So, I guess from Greg Mitchell’s viewpoint, the people who watch these shows are far “more knowledgble” than the slack-jawed, drooling idiots that tune into Steven Colbert or Jon Stewart.  Right?  Gee, I wonder why he never mentioned Rush Limbaugh in his little article?

It must have been an oversight.  Oopsie.

As far as interest in national news goes, people who tune into Rush Limbaugh, Hannity and Colms, Lou Dobbs, and Bill O’Reilly are among the strongest.  Stewart and Colbert didn’t even make the chart.  I guess that means the people who tune in to watch that rubbish are just a bunch of political couch-potatos who have no real desire to keep themselves informed.

So the question one needs to ask is: is Greg Mitchell slanting his “reporting”, or is he just plain stupid?  Perhaps he’s sloppy?  Maybe not so informed?  At this point, it’s anyone’s guess.

What’s funny is the byline at the bottom of the article:

Greg Mitchell’s new book in Iraq and the media includes chapters on Colbert and Stewart. It is titled “So Wrong for So Long.”

“So Wrong for So Long”?  It must be an autobiography.

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