John Oliver, Saturday Night Live (SNL), and Stephen Colbert — you’ve heard their names and have probably seen at least a segment or two of their content on social media, but should any of them be considered a legitimate news source?
In a recent poll, the Pew Research Center found that 21% of young adults watch theses shows as their main or only source of news, in comparison to 23% who cited ABC, CBS, or NBC as their method of getting news. These percentages call to question whether entertainment late night shows report and portray news events accurately.
In an interview with NPR, John Oliver said that his show should not be considered journalism and that calling it journalism would defeat his comedic career. “No, we are a comedy show, so everything we do is in pursuit of comedy,” said Oliver. “You can’t build jokes on sand ... You try to be as rigorous as you can in terms of fact-checking because your responsibility is to make sure that your joke is structurally sound.”
I decided to do a bit of research on the subject by watching a show and fact-checking it as it presented each news fact.
With the excitement around SNL returning this upcoming Saturday, I decided to watch its Weekend Update segment, which is the show’s most conspicuous news reporting segment. On Weekend Update, two SNL cast members, Colin Jost and Michael Che, take on the personas of news reporters wrapping up the most major news events of the week while adding their own comedic spin. I watched various episodes: from rhetoric on the 2016 presidential debates to the most current one reporting on North Korea, and I fact-checked any major point they spurred their jokes off of. From what I found, facts used in their segment were realistic and adequately summarized the situations being reported, but the information provided was limited.
For example, during Weekend Update Summer Edition, Jost and Che quickly explained the staffing changes within the White House that occurred in late July. The hosts joked about the whirlwind week in which Anthony Scaramucci was hired as Communication Director causing Sean Spicer to resign as Press Secretary and then Scaramucci was fired — all within 10 days. If someone with no prior knowledge of the situation watched this episode, they would learn about the staffing change but would lack knowledge of the events that lead up to it.
While the facts themselves may be accurate, the jokes mainly appealed to audiences falling on the left side of the political spectrum. This is made evident in the irreverent rhetoric against the Trump administration that was not as commonly found against the Obama administration, such as Trump (Alec Baldwin) kissing Putin (Beck Bennett).
When watching these types of shows, you can expect to be exposed to only one side’s viewpoint. Comedic or not, watching only biased media with opinions that align with one’s own limits a person’s understanding of important issues that are facing our world.
Just because a show’s facts are accurate doesn’t necessarily mean that shows created for the purpose of entertainment are legitimate and sufficient news sources. Professor of Political Science Sara Angevine holds the opinion that any single source of news is not enough; it is always best to look at multiple news sources. “These ‘infotainment’ shows are made to serve a purpose of entertainment. One news source is better than none, but it is always favorable to be exposed to multiple news outlets,” said Angevine.
With the ridiculous headlines this country is hit with daily, it is understandable that some people want to find something funny amidst the severity of our situation. While late night shows deliver a sharp critique of the powers that be, there is still an obvious line between what is news and what is comedy. Though we could all use a laugh or two these days, staying informed about national and local issues is no laughing matter.