BOB GARFIELD: As we consider the media coverage of election 2006, we might consider the coverage of the election in 2004. That's what Indiana University assistant professor Julia Fox and her students did. And, after developing criteria that distinguished real information from fluff, she went about quantifying exactly how much hard news was communicated per story in the nightly news broadcasts compared with Comedy Central's Daily Show. What she found was roughly the same level of serious content across the board. But, as Adam Ragusea reports, she did find one small difference.
ADAM RAGUSEA: The only difference was that where the Daily Show's information was diluted with humor, network news was equally diluted with hype.
JULIA FOX: So for people who are worried about, you know, the growing reliance on the Daily Show as a source of news, it's at least as substantive as the source that people have relied on for decades. On the other hand, neither one of them are particularly substantive in an absolute sense. So I think that should give pause to people who are relying on either of those sources.
ADAM RAGUSEA: But Scott Libin, who teaches journalists at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, is not convinced.
SCOTT LIBIN: This survey chose the nights of the two national political conventions and the first presidential debate. I think you could argue that those are important milestones in campaign coverage but not necessarily reflective of coverage overall. They are rich with comedic material, though.
ADAM RAGUSEA: Libin says Dr. Fox's study caught network news at its worst. He also takes issue with Fox's dismissing of poll data, political endorsements and photo opportunities as mere hype rather than substantive information.
SCOTT LIBIN: Photo opportunities, you know, not very substantial, I would have to agree. But hype is usually short for hyperbole, and that tends to mean, what? Exaggeration. Well, I don't know that polls and political endorsements quite qualify. And I think polls play a part. I think political endorsements can be significant.
ADAM RAGUSEA: Dr. Fox stands by her methods, pointing out that her study has weathered two complete processes of peer review. Now she's following up with a study that looks at how well viewers absorb information from the Daily Show versus network news. She expects to find that viewers actually retain more information from the Daily Show.
JULIA FOX: People are laughing. There's a literature on emotional contagion that says people catch other people's laughter. The onset of the laughter when it starts can elicit what we call an "orienting response," which is an automatic attentional response, and that can help them process the information that follows. So if there's joke, laughing and then fact, they may remember that fact better. [VIDEO CLIP]
JON STEWART: Well, let's move on to the good news. As of last night, North Korea has one less nuclear bomb. [LAUGHTER] Last night, at 9:36 Eastern Standard scary time -- [CHEERS AND APPLAUSE] - North Korea said it successfully tested a nuclear weapon, triggering the kind of global freak-out normally reserved for someone bringing, let's say, two ounces of hand sanitizer on a flight to Ottawa. [LAUGHTER] [END VIDEO CLIP]
ADAM RAGUSEA: Dr. Richard Clark is a professor of educational psychology and technology at the University of Southern California as well as a former television newsman. He says humor can provide the motivation viewers need to really think about what's in front of them.
RICHARD CLARK: There isn't a lot of research on this, but what is there suggests that humor makes people more positive emotionally, and that it leads them to be motivated to persist and think about things a little bit more deeply sometimes than they would be inclined to. When people are angry or depressed, even if it's only mild anger, mild depression, they're not very motivated to pay attention to things. And I'd say the news presented straight has a tendency to both anger and depress people lately. [VIDEO CLIP]
BRIAN WILLIAMS: What can be done now that North Korea is apparently part of the potentially dangerous club of nuclear nations? [END VIDEO CLIP]
ADAM RAGUSEA: While he acknowledges the power of humor, Dr. Clark is not about to recommend that Brian Williams start cracking jokes on the NBC Nightly News.
RICHARD CLARK: Humor is not the only way to motivate people to get involved in stories, and I'm not even sure it's the best way. I wouldn't, myself, generalize that far. For example, you want people to think deeply about issues not just because they feel good at the moment but because they value the issues as part of their responsibility in a democratic society.
ADAM RAGUSEA: But what responsibility does something like the Daily Show really have? No one has more adamantly insisted that the Daily Show is just a comedy show than Jon Stewart himself. With his 2004 appearance on CNN's Crossfire, Stewart made it very clear where he feels the real responsibility lies. [VIDEO CLIP]
TUCKER CARLSON: You've got to be kidding me! [OVERTALK]
JON STEWART: You're on CNN! [OVERTALK]
JON STEWART: The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls! What is wrong with you? [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]
TUCKER CARLSON: Well, I'm just saying -- [END VIDEO CLIP]
ADAM RAGUSEA: But whether he likes it or not, Stewart may have transcended his original mandate. If Dr. Fox's findings are to be believed, does that mean the Daily Show should start taking itself more seriously? Fox doesn't think so. She says her research should simply remind people to get their news from a variety of sources, including print media-- and, of course, public radio. For On the Media, I'm Adam Regusea.