Comedian journalist John Oliver just aired his best piece ever. And it’s important to think of it in the context of why his brand of journalism is admired — and important — to the future of news content.
Oliver identified the problem when it comes to having a nationwide, thorough and even-keeled discussion on the issue of privacy vs. national security. It’s really hard to understand.
That’s why, as he pointed out, news organizations can prioritize the drunk driving arrest of Justin Bieber over a sitting congresswoman having a serious discussion about that balance.
The problem is how to reach that audience. This is an audience that despite nonstop news coverage and “person of 2013” platitudes for Edward Snowden, they still can’t properly identify who he is or what he’s done.
Glenn Greenwald himself, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The Intercept, even reacted to the piece, expands on Oliver’s point that there is a systemic disengagement throughout the U.S. on a number of things, not just the news of the moment.
- 41 percent of Americans can’t identify the vice president
- Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government, a fact you must at least be familiar with to become a U.S. citizen
- 70% believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the 9/11 attacks
Snowden misunderstood his audience’s capacity to contemplate and contextualize his actions. Oliver saw the problem, and addressed this.
Enter John Oliver’s dick pic.
The privacy of our private parts is something most if not all Americans can understand. And a significant chunk of people who date online send sexually explicit texts. It doesn't take much imagination to figure that a lot of them are nude selfies and dick pics.
Oliver identified a communication problem, and then he crunched the issue down to a singular topic anyone can identify with.
Consider what one woman said once the issue of privacy vs. security was broken down to dick pics:
Notice Snowden's smile, as if his own words are being reflected back to him. Someone is getting it.
A recent post by a journalism student, Will Federman, is instructive when it comes to understanding the audience you serve. He writes, “I am encouraging all of my peers to think about answering the problem often facing the audience of traditional journalism: how to create actionable content.”
“We can’t be hung up on knowing better than the audience, nor condescending in our analysis,” he goes on. It’s hazardous to do so. A perfect example: Rolling Stone magazine’s abject failure in performing journalism because it was so centered on finding the most “emblematic” rape story, as if that was ever easy to define. It was folly and it did damage.
John Oliver understands this. Much has been said about how “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart is more trusted than several “serious” news organizations. Comedy was Stewart’s Trojan Horse.
What Oliver is doing is comedy, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying journalists should be engaging in acts of comedy. Far from it. But it’s important to know why Oliver is becoming more and more popular, and why he’s being considered the future of comedy journalism. And it’s more important to understand the lessons he’s teaching us about the audience.
This isn't a new concept. Traditional journalism has always had to be packaged in some form or another that’s palatable to the audience. There’s a reason why crosswords, comics and coupons exist in newspapers. That’s why colorful graphics, bullet points and 70-point headlines exist. News organizations need to capture an audience somehow.
That’s why Buzzfeed’s innate social media sense is paying off so well. #TheDress is not indicative of their entire coverage, but it helped spread brand awareness farther than any one story could hope. Ezra Klein’s Vox is breaking down hard news in bite-sized nuggets of information so they have context.
“Everything you did only matters if we have this conversation properly,” Oliver states.
John Oliver isn't just pointing to a picture of his dick. He may be also pointing to journalism’s future.
And it’s probably looking up.