Do we trust comedians more than journalists?
As a journalism student, I love John Oliver, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. Granted, Stewart has left The Daily Show and Colbert is slightly more commercialized on CBS, but the love is still there.
John Oliver is consistently accused of being a journalist. Despite creating long, investigative pieces about underreported (and sometimes over-reported) stories, he still contends he’s a comedian. He makes jokes about the news. In an interview, Jorge Ramos says to Oliver, “You have more credibility than most journalists in the United States.”
Likewise, Stewart and Colbert attracted an audience that received much of its current affairs input from Comedy Central. In fact, in 2007, the Pew Research Center asked the public who was their most admired journalist. Jon Stewart was on the list.
Part of the reason I think that comedians, satirists specifically, are trusted more is because they put an opinion on the table. Often times that opinion is used to show how ridiculous a politician, policy, or trend is. This reassures people that someone else shares their opinion or that people are aware of how silly something might be. Also, I think these comedians are trusted more because their content is more digestible than straight news.
Also, I think that people who criticize mass media and cling to satirical news updates are only shunning traditional news sources that, perhaps, need to be criticized a bit. But, I think as online journalism has developed, there are sources that are now doing great journalism as watchdogs, muckrakers, and exposers of injustice. However, their audience just might not be as wide as HBO’s Last Week Tonight.
Additionally, news is limited by its ideal of objectivity. While this concept, established in American media in the early 1900’s, could be contended, it is still a cornerstone of journalism. It is essential to provide a balanced, un-opinionated presentation of a story. Again, this could also be contended, seeing as most news sources have some type of bias. But this ideal stops journalists from doing what comedians can do.
I’ve thought, as a journalist, wouldn’t people be more interested in a news story if it were funny and easily consumed, like the satirists make it. But that crosses the boundary into entertainment, which is also criticized for being infotainment. There can be place for that, in editorials, but not in straight news pieces — long or short form because objectivity is sacrificed and a story is then presented with perspective on it.
Instead, it is the journalist’s job to present the stories about politicians, crooked deals, and corruption. We lay the pieces out, without a judgment call, and let the readers interpret and decide what is ridiculous, what is worthy of satirizing. In this way, the journalists and the comedians work together. Although the relationship is often contentious, like between Stewart and Fox News (not really sure if they qualify as journalists either).
I think it is important for us to realize the likes of Stewart, Colbert, Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Samantha Bee are not journalists. They are comedians. We can trust them, but let’s also trust the journalists. I think it is fine to get a news update from Comedy Central, as long as that is supplanted with an understanding of the story.
Personally, I think John Oliver is doing what every journalist wishes they could be doing if it weren’t for budget constraints, company limitations, and/or resource restrictions. We all want to be telling a story, which then causes the audience to crash the FCC website or change policy on Net Neutrality. But, we can’t do that if an audience refuses to trust us.