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Pulling it Together: REPOR(t)

In today’s column I investigate a somewhat lighter topic than my last column on micro-simulation modeling: What was the impact of shows like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report on the health reform debate?  Who among us has not wondered about the answer to this question?  Please don’t answer that.

I should start by acknowledging that I am a frequent but not religious viewer of these shows, and believe that whatever else they do they perform a deeper public service by helping us take a semi-comical/semi-serious look at the less functional aspects of our democracy.  That made health reform—especially the political and legislative process—a prime topic for both shows over the last year.

In our May tracking poll, 12% of the American people said they got information on health reform from shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (or their websites).  The numbers were higher for college graduates (16%); higher still for 18-29 year olds (19%); and self-reported liberals (20% vs. 9% for conservatives).

We also asked people what their “most important” source of information was on health reform.  Cable TV news and their related websites topped the list, picked by 30%, followed by newspapers and their websites and friends and family at 12% and 11% respectively.  (Note: some respected bloggers questioned whether this could be so given TV ratings data showing far fewer people tuned in to cable than, say, network news, but how frequently people view a news show and what they cite as their “most important” source of information on an issue can be very different things.)  In any event, shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were picked by a tiny 1% as people’s “most important” source of information.  If that sounds very low, by comparison “your doctor or another health care professional” was picked by 3% (19% said they got some information on health reform from their doctor or a health professional).

We also know from an earlier Time magazine poll conducted in October of 2008 that 11% of likely voters cited Stewart/Colbert as a ”major source” of news about politics and current events, 25% as a “minor source”, and 63% as “not a source”.

So what do numbers like these mean?   I suspect the 12% who cite Stewart and Colbert as a “source of information about health reform” is a real undercount; respondents may not think of these shows as providing “information” even if they get them to “think” about a subject like health reform or about government or politics.  These shows are primarily viewed by people as entertainment.  Also, the data should be viewed in the context of the changing information consumption habits of many Americans, especially younger people.  They are fast becoming one-person-news-aggregators, pulling together what they see and learn from multiple websites and shows to form their own overall picture of issues and events (even if they seldom pick up a newspaper or watch broadcast news).  For viewers what they see or learn on The Daily Show is a piece of a “daily” puzzle they assemble themselves. An unknown and I suspect very small percentage of people get their only exposure to information about current events from shows like The Colbert Report, or The Daily Show, or Real Time with Bill Maher, or the other late night shows. The shows engage this group in public affairs when they otherwise might not be engaged but may also fuel skepticism about government and our ability to solve problems as a country which polling suggests seems to be growing.

Another way these shows have impact is that people often forward show segments to their friends, especially young people.  For example, I am forwarding this Jon Stewart interview about “death panels” to you now, one of his interviews that was flipped widely around the internet during the health reform debate.  Lastly, episodes of these shows often create buzz that influences mainstream media, makes news itself, and becomes part of the ever intensifying news cycle.  The impact of a “hot” segment or interview on a show like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report is not told simply through the number of viewers alone or the number of respondents who tell us they got information on an issue from the show in a poll.

One question is how much these shows will continue to pay attention to health reform as we move from a hot political debate to behind-the-scenes implementation issues that are not often grist for riveting television.  It is hard to imagine a Samantha Bee report on medical loss ratio regulations (although not impossible). It would be a good thing for Stewart and Colbert to continue following health reform because it would help keep the public engaged, especially younger people who watch these shows. But it also might be a sign that implementation is not going well if it becomes the focus of shows that capitalize on absurdities and gaffes. That’s the Repor(t).