Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What journalists can learn from "The Daily Show"

This is a very old clip, but I think the issues raised are still relevant, particularly in an election year. I have said in posts here and on other blogs that I am concerned that with the 24-hour news cycle, it is becoming more difficult to find reporting that actually takes an honest, critical look at news stories. This video, which I'm sure you have all seen, is one of the most brilliant and scathing commentaries on how partisan bickering actually hurts the political process. I'll let Jon Stewart take it from here (more on my views after the jump) ...

Last year, a study at Indiana University found that determined that "The Daily Show" has as much "real" news content as channels such as CNN. I remember having debates in class over whether the show qualified as "real journalism." My argument was then and is now that an understanding of current events is necessary to understand "The Daily Show," and that most of the people I know who watch the show are far more informed than those who do not follow the news at all. I would never make a case for relying entirely on a comedy show for news, but I do think there's something to be said for the way this particular show presents information. "The Daily Show" covers real news events — it just does so in a way that makes it possible to cut right to the chase and say what is missing from a story or to point out the absurdity of a situation. Because there is not pretense of objectivity, Jon Stewart is able to be honest with viewers about what he thinks is wrong with something the government is doing. The difference between Jon Stewart and partisan "journalists" is that Stewart does not pretend to be objective or balanced.

While trying to find a copy of the study in question (if anyone has one, I'd love to have a copy), I found a good article from American Journalism Review that discusses what journalists can learn from "The Daily Show" model. The author, Rachel Smolkin, presents the idea that "The Daily Show" is often better at getting to the truth because the writers are not afraid to express outrage or to flat-out say that politicians are lying (often, she writes, using politicians' own words to highlight when they are lying).

One of the sources in this article is a journalism professor named Hub Brown who, Smolkin writes, was initially "appalled" that his students enjoyed "The Daily Show," but is now a convert. Brown is quoted discussing the idea that willingness of "Daily Show" writers to call politicians out for their mistakes is what sometimes makes it more honest than other media outlets, and I think this quote sums up why I think "The Daily Show" is a good model for other journalists.

"We saw a lot of that during Hurricane Katrina, but it shouldn't take a Hurricane Katrina to get journalists to say the truth, to call it as they see it," Brown says. "The thing that makes 'The Daily Show' stick out is they sometimes seem to understand that better than the networks do." He adds: "I think it's valuable because when the emperor has no clothes, we get to say the emperor has no clothes. And we have to do that more often here... The truth itself doesn't respect point of view. The truth is never balanced... We have to not give in to an atmosphere that's become so partisan that we're afraid of what we say every single time we say something."


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