Jon Stewart may have ended his 16-year comedic reign on “The Daily Show,” but according to new research, the show may have helped shape public opinion on a controversial (but actually not controversial) scientific topic: climate change.
The way the media covers climate change varies widely across different outlets. Some media companies treat it as scientific fact, but others present it as a topic that is still up for debate.
Before we go any further, let’s be clear: 99.9% of scientists agree that climate change is real and worsened by the way we are treating the planet.
Satirical news shows tend to recognise that fact. And now new research suggests that Stewart in the “The Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert in the “The Colbert Report,” may have actually helped convince people that climate change is real.
“These results dovetail with, while also extending, previous research showing that satirical television news can shape public opinion about other public affairs topics as well as attention to scientific and environmental issues, including climate change,” researchers from the University of Delaware wrote in the study published on Aug.7 in the journal Science Communication.
The researchers recruited about 400 people between the ages of 18 and 24 to watch a one-minute clip from either “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report” where the hosts discuss climate change. Some of the volunteers watched an unrelated clip from the show “Finding Bigfoot,” which served as the control group. All the volunteers then answered a series of questions that included one asking each participant to rate how certain they are that climate change is real on a nine-point scale.
Here’s “The Daily Show” episode used for the study. The climate change discussion starts at around the 47 second mark:
And here’s the climate change segment of “The Colbert Report” episode:
Those who watched the “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report” clip were on average over half a point more certain that climate change is happening than those who watched the “Bigfoot” clip.
In the US, climate change is polarised along political lines, so it’s interesting that political party affiliation didn’t appear to make a difference in the study. Roughly the same number of republicans and democrats said they believed climate change is real after watching one of the Stewart or Colbert clips.
Those who watched the Stewart or Colbert clips were asked whether they thought the host of the show believed in climate change or not. One big difference between the clips is that Stewart takes a more straight forward approach to mocking climate deniers in “The Daily Show” clip, while Colbert’s sarcasm in “The Colbert Report” clip is more subtle.
Republicans were much more likely to misinterpret Colbert’s sarcastic comments, and conclude that he does not think climate change is real while democrats were more likely to conclude that he does believe in climate change.
“A plausible interpretation of this pattern is that viewers tended to interpret his ambiguous messages in ways that reflected their own ideological orientations,” the researchers wrote.
The overall effect is relatively small, but the researchers argue that the results are significant because these kinds of shows have the potential to inform people who don’t watch or read traditional news.
“Put another way, satirical television news may provide an alternative route for influencing public perceptions of climate change by presenting information in an entertaining format that draws otherwise unengaged viewers,” the researchers wrote.
The main away is that satirical news shows can influence how someone perceives climate change, not that they necessarily will.
The researchers also give a nod to John Oliver whose “Last Week Tonight” show has also called out climate change deniers.
“You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact,” Oliver says during a popular episode with a “statistically representative” climate change debate:
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