FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

To Young People, News is Funny Business

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press surveyed young people on their preferred news sources for election coverage. The results were surprising. Only 23% of 18-30 year-olds get their news from network news programs, down from 39% in 2000. This can be attributable to more young people getting news from cable and the Web, of course. But the real surprise came when 21% said that their primary source for election news were satirical and comedy sources... beating out many other traditional news sources such as newspapers.

"Satirical and comedy sources" would include the nightly monologues of Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien; Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment; and Jon Stewart's Daily Show. A newer phenomenon has been the rise of comedians who put a serious spin on the news, including Dennis Miller, Bill Maher and Al Franken. MSNBC's wonderful Countdown with Keith Olbermann is a "serious" news show, yet its quick and irreverent take on the day's events suggests it might portend the future of news broadcasting, especially once the stalwarts of network news opt to retire (as Tom Brokaw plans to do after this year's election).

So what does this all mean for the future of news? One can glean several insights from it, as well as from other journalistic trends:

  • Younger viewers want to be entertained as much as to be informed (hence, the increase in celebrity and entertainment news)
  • Viewers of all ages like the ability to watch news on their own schedules. When I was growing up, if you weren't free to watch the news at six or 11, you missed out. Today, cable and the Internet provide us news whenever.
  • The Internet makes possible the delivery of niche news sources, and alternative journalists such as Matt Drudge. Tired of the "liberal media"? Watch Fox News Channel or visit NewsMax.
  • The Net also fosters the "viral" spreading of "news," which may or may not be truthful (a good future research project for Pew would be to see how many people take blogs, discussion forums and forwarded e-mails as seriously or more seriously than conventional news outlets).
  • Comedians are more interested in getting laughs than in presenting objective information. Therefore, they use stereotypes as building blocks for jokes (George W. Bush as dumb, John Kerry as dull, Howard Dean as crazy, Bill Clinton as a pervert, etc.). Fact is, we find these funny because they have led us to agree with them, whether or no they're true.
  • Comedians also usually have biases and agendas. Most are liberal, though Dennis Miller is a standout conservative and Bush supporter.
All these options compete for our attention, and as a result our attention spans shorten. We have very little patience for something that doesn't immediately "grab" or amuse us. So it's little wonder that today's young people would rather laugh along with Jay, Dave, Conan or Jon than be bored by Dan, Peter and Tom.