Satirical News Makes Real Impression On Viewers

Jan 30, 2017

Satirical news matters. That’s according to a new study from researchers at Ohio State University, who found consumers tend to use satirical news to reinforce their beliefs, and as an alternative to real news.

Researchers created an online interface on which people could view eight clips on three topics: climate change, gun control, and immigration. Participants could pick something that was satirical, a typical news story with little bias, or Democratic- or Republican-leaning program.

People with high political interest tended to choose traditional news shows, while people with less political interest tended to choose the satirical clips. Those who chose satirical news shows tended to pick shows that reinforced their existing beliefs.

“We should just not dismiss those satire shows as just being funny and inconsequential. They definitely have an impact," says study author Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick.

Knobloch-Westerwick says Democrats tended to be a little more "open-minded" about enjoying satire from across the political aisle, while Republicans seemed to use confirmation bias by not viewing clips that went against their beliefs.

For more on her study, Knobloch-Westerwick spoke with WOSU's Steve Brown. 

Below is an automated transcript. Please excuse minor typos and errors.

Steve Brown: So your new study basically says, people choose satirical news based on their existing beliefs and then these shows reinforce their beliefs as much as watching serious news. Talk about how exactly you carried out the study.

Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick: We created an online interface on which people would see a little blurb on a news topic. The news topic was either immigration, gun control or climate change. And then they could take a news clip that would either be satirical or it could be a news clip that could be the regular kind of news that you see on television, and they could also see whether the clip that they choose was leaning Democrat or Republican. So they had these choices between regular news, satirical, or left or right leaning, if you will.

And what we found was that people generally chose more often the regular news if they had high political interests. But those who had low political interest were definitely leaning towards more the satirical clips. We also found that generally people take the Democrat leaning if they were Democrats themselves, and vice versa, so a Republican would be leaning towards the Republican news clips.

Steve Brown: You said the results show people who had a lower interest in politics preferred satirical news. This makes sense for people who generally prefer entertainment over straight news. But it's also slightly worrisome, because people are having their beliefs reinforced by really what amounts to comedy shows.

Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick: Yes very much so. This was one motivation to do this study because we all would like people to engage also with views that they are not holding already so that they engage in deliberation and also see other people's viewpoints. And we were hoping that satire might actually help with that so that you might be more willing to look at something that does not align with your views if it's meant to be funny, so that you're not feeling that you are being persuaded.

But we didn't really find that. Only the Democrats were more open toward other viewpoints in the satire clips. The Republicans were very much showing, if you will, a confirmation bias: They would always go for the Republican-leaning clips, no matter whether they were real news or satirical news.

Steve Brown: These satirical shows, they're not necessarily inaccurate, right? And they might in some cases be more accurate or at least even more even-handed than than, say, a Sean Hannity or a Rachel Maddow.

Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick: Even-handed is a big word. I would say they often use regular footage. So the information that you're getting might be just as good as in a regular news show. So the framing, the commentary, whether you see this is accurate or correct very much depends on your viewpoint.

There's really no accuracy in those opinions, though other research has found. If you're a leaning Democrat and you see something that's leaning Democrat you will find this accurate. But if you're a Republican and you see something that's leading Democrat, you will find that inaccurate or biased. So there's no truth, if you will, in terms of opinion.

Steve Brown: If there's a message here for the hosts of these shows, people like Trevor Noah or John Oliver, what would you say it is? Is it that they have a lot of sway over their viewers, or is there a message for them here?

Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick: The message might be people pick out what they believe in already, so oftentimes these shows might be reinforcing pre-existing views, which is something that you find in other shows as well.

So research does not dismiss those satire shows as just being funny and inconsequential. They definitely have an impact. We also found that they have an impact on people's political efficacy, how much they feel that they can influence politics. So your own everyday engagement in politics might be affected by watching these shows as well.