Is infotainment the new news?

Amanda Montes

Tina Fey’s representation of Sarah Palin is one example of infotainment interfering with politics.  Photo courtesy of  NBC

Tina Fey’s representation of Sarah Palin is one example of infotainment interfering with politics.
Photo courtesy of NBC

Who doesn’t love a great comedy show at 11:30 p.m.? Saturday Night Live (SNL) has given people a distraction when they can’t fall asleep and need something funny to watch, with sketches including “Mock Jeopardy,” “Close Encounter,” “Weekend Updates,” and “Game Night.” We all love watching our favorite celebrities on the show, such as Ryan Gosling, Tom Hanks, and Jennifer Lawrence. But why are late-night shows becoming the new source for news and politics? Both young adults and older generations are starting to rely on late-night TV to get their information on current events. Not only that, but they get a comedic relief out of watching these shows, which makes it easier for the shows and audience to discuss such sensitive topics.

Satire discusses topics, such as sexism, that are usually difficult to talk about publically, and gives people a chance to broach uncomfortable conversations in the safety of comedic context. Anthony Thai of The Harvard Crimson wrote, “Satire has made politics more accessible, leading to more informed viewers who have the potential to form more educated opinions and discuss those views with others.” The advantage of these late-night TV shows is that people become aware of current issues, which leads them to delve further into research, but the show’s main purpose is entertainment. “Despite these advantages, some have argued that political satire encourages cynicism, trivializes politics, and promotes a narrow point of view (stemming from the predominantly liberal leanings of most political satirists and comedians),” said Thai.

Shows like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, and Late Night with Seth Meyers have all created comedy out of current news and politics. Meyers initially began doing parody news on the famous SNL skit “Weekend Updates,”
 which was purely comedic. He has since continued to insert the comedic narrative into his late-night show, which has become a gateway for a variety of age ranges to get their news. According to the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of young adults have heard of The Colbert Report and 10 percent say they get their news solely from Colbert’s The Late Night Show, with young adult males being the target audience.

Colbert, who aligns himself with the Democratic party, began his career as a political comedian. Colbert’s goal for the show after the election of Trump was to feed the late-night market from an anti-Trump point of view. Bill Carter, a former writer for the New York Times, said, “[Colbert and Seth Meyers] are like the voice of resistance.” Colbert’s show contains a great amount of content on the anti-Trump movement because he has found an outlet to be his true self: a left-leaning political comedian. Many of these late-night talk show hosts explain that their shows are not news, and they are not journalists. 

Assistant Professor of Political Science Sara Angevine had insightful and positive comments on the subject. “As you get older, your voting habits become much more stable,” she said. “Satire has always played a role in political education.” She mentioned that young adults, ages 18 – 25, are the lowest in voter rates, and they are connected to specific causes, such as the Green Party and the Democratic Party, who are doing more to get them to vote.  

Professor Angevine also confirmed that people get info from variety of sources. In terms of accurate and reliable facts, she said, “[TV shows] are betting on an intelligent audience.” If the target demographic is college-educated subscribers, the television shows would not want to give inaccurate info, or else they would lose their audience. Professor Angevine said, “They try to be as factual as possible, but they have no responsibility to do that.” The youth may be more interested in wanting to understand the joke, which leads them to gaining more information about the issue. By watching these shows, young adults get humor, but in return they also end up searching for the truth. 

Shows like SNL want their audience to understand the jokes. “The purpose is humor, and if you get politically informed in the process, that’s great, but it’s very different from watching PBS NewsHour,” said Angevine. “It’s not their primary objective to inform. Their primary objective is to entertain. It’s called ‘infotainment.’  This model of television incentivises views to get more information on the issue.”

Colbert has become one of the most popular late-night TV shows, with 4.02 million average viewers per show, according to Vulture. The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum wrote, “Attacking Trump isn’t in itself subversive . . . When Colbert’s jokes make obvious points (about nepotism, say), they feel weightless, but bolder ones (about Putin murdering journalists) feel trivializing.” Colbert succeeded one of the most legendary talk show hosts known in late-night,;David Letterman. Letterman is still praised for his way of interviewing guests, cutting to the straightforward and somewhat impertinent questions. This suggests that these TV shows are a loophole for saying things journalists cannot.

“The media can affect how issues are framed,” Professor Angevine said. She used the metaphor of a baseball game in terms of political news and reporters: Interest groups and political parties are the battling teams and media is the umpire. “[These shows] don’t affect political parties, but they can frame issues that may not reflect what the political parties want,” said Professor Angevine. “When you’re watching something, are you changing your mind or are you watching something that reinforces how you already think? That’s the real debate we have in political science and media.”

There is nothing wrong with getting enjoyment out of SNL news skits or getting information from late-night TV shows. Just be sure to check all the facts, because these shows contain political satire that speak the truth, but an exaggerated truth. These shows are for entertainment and comedy; therefore, all the information might not be given as it would be on newscasts such as ABC, CBS and NBC. Angevine praises Fivethirtyeight, a data analysis outlet that seeks to make political information accessible to all, for its modern platform which attracts many young adult. CSPAN and  are her recommendations for more standard news outlets. It is often said that reading multiple sources is the most suitable way to discover the accurate truth and establish knowledge on any issue you might be interested in.