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Survey shows Daily Show viewers more politically savvy

No Joke: Daily Show Viewers Follow Presidential Race
Sep 21, 2004 12:20 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA -- Viewers of late-night comedy programs, especially The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on the cable channel Comedy Central, are more likely to know the issue positions and backgrounds of presidential candidates than people who do not watch late-night comedy, the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey shows.

Polling conducted between July 15 and Sept. 19 among 19,013 adults showed that on a six-item political knowledge test people who did not watch any late-night comedy programs in the past week answered 2.62 items correctly, while viewers of Late Night with David Letterman on CBS answered 2.91, viewers of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno answered 2.95, and viewers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart answered 3.59 items correctly. That meant there was a difference of 16 percentage points between Daily Show viewers and people who did not watch any late-night programming.

The campaign knowledge test covered such topics as which candidate favors allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market, the income range at which John Kerry would eliminate the Bush tax cut, and which candidate is a former prosecutor.

“In recent years, traditional journalists have been voicing increasing concern that if young people are receiving political information from late-night comedy shows like The Daily Show, they may not be adequately informed on the issues of the day,” said Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, a senior analyst at the Annenberg Public Policy Center who conducted the research. ”This data suggests that these fears may be unsubstantiated. We find no differences in campaign knowledge between young people who watch Leno and Letterman – programs with a lot of political humor in their opening monologues -- and those who do not watch late night. But when looking at young people who watch The Daily Show, we find they score higher on campaign knowledge than young people who do not watch the show, even when education, following politics, party identification, gender, viewing network news, reading the newspaper, watching cable news and getting campaign information on-line are taken into account.”

The Annenberg survey found that people who watch The Daily Show are more interested in the presidential campaign, more educated, younger, and more liberal than the average American or than Leno or Letterman viewers. “However, these factors do not explain the difference in levels of campaign knowledge between people who watch The Daily Show and people who do not,” Young pointed out. “In fact, Daily Show viewers have higher campaign knowledge than national news viewers and newspaper readers -- even when education, party identification, following politics, watching cable news, receiving campaign information online, age, and gender are taken into consideration.”

During the mid-July to mid-September time survey period, Daily Show host Jon Stewart interviewed such political figures as Sen. John Kerry, Sen. John McCain, former President Bill Clinton, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, and White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett. In addition to the interviews, The Daily Show’s programs dealt with political news and issues of the day, from “Mess O’Potamia” (ongoing coverage of the Iraq War), to the controversial anti-Kerry swift boat advertisements, to the value of “objectivity” in news reporting.

Young people who watched The Daily Show scored 48% correct on the campaign knowledge test while young people who did not watch any late-night comedy scored 39% correct. Meanwhile, young people who watched four of more days of network news scored 40% correct, equally frequent cable news viewers 48% correct and newspaper readers 46% correct.

The interviewing period used in these analyses included The Daily Show’s coverage of both party conventions. On six of the eight nights of the conventions, Nielsen ratings indicate, The Daily Show drew more 18-34 year olds (during its 11:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. time slot) than the cable news channels such as Fox, MSNBC, CNBC and CNN.

The Annenberg data indicate that of those people who watched late-night comedy programming at least once in the previous week, 37% report watching Leno most often, 34% report Letterman, and 15% report The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When looking just at people ages 18 to 29, the survey found 30% report watching Leno most often, 25% Letterman, and 22% Stewart.

A content analysis of late-night comedy content conducted on Leno, Letterman, and Stewart monologues and headlines from July 15 through Sept. 16 indicates that 33% of jokes made by Stewart during the show’s “headlines” mentioned at least one policy issue, compared to 24% of Leno’s monologue jokes and 21% of Letterman’s. Other topics covered in late-night monologues included candidates' personalities, their chances of winning as well as events and blunders that occurred on the campaign trail.

Of the 83 political jokes made by Stewart, only 9 specifically targeted Bush. That was 11% of his political jokes. The same number targeted Kerry.

“The Daily Show segments are less likely than a Leno or Letterman joke to use a quick punch-line to make fun of a candidate,” said Young. “Instead, Stewart’s lengthier segments employ irony to explore policy issues, news events, and even the media’s coverage of the campaign.”

Leno and Letterman’s monologue jokes were more likely than The Daily Show to take aim specifically at Bush or Kerry. Of Leno’s 315 political jokes, 97 (31%) targeted Bush and 76 (24%) targeted Kerry. Of Letterman’s 136 political jokes, 20 (15%) targeted Bush and 21 (15%) targeted Kerry.

Of Leno’s 97 Bush jokes, 38% focused on the idea that he lacked intelligence. About 10% of Leno’s jokes about Bush fell into each of the following categories: he is not technically president (lost in 2000), he shirked responsibility with the National Guard, and he is responsible for the poor state of the economy. Letterman’s 20 Bush jokes followed a similar pattern with 45% focusing on Bush’s intelligence and 10% falling into each of the following categories: he is not technically president (lost in 2000), the charge that he shirked his duties with the Texas Air National Guard, and his alleged dishonesty.

Leno and Letterman’s jokes about Kerry fell into various categories. While Letterman’s jokes were more likely to portray Kerry as losing the election (24% of Letterman’s 21 Kerry jokes), Leno was more likely to mock Kerry’s wealth and rich wife (20% of Leno’s 76 Kerry jokes). Letterman was also likely to tell jokes about Kerry in relation to his service in Vietnam (19%), his physical appearance (14%), and his alleged flip-flopping on the issues (10%). Leno’s jokes about Kerry also focused on his alleged flip flopping (18%), his losing the election (12%) and his service in Vietnam (11%).

The National Annenberg Election Survey, the largest academic election poll, is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. The survey has been tracking the presidential campaign since Oct. 7, 2003, and interviewing will continue until after Election Day.

Visit the Annenberg Public Policy Center at


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