Colbert Report doubles as crash course in campaign finance

Colbert started his own Super-PAC on air, engaging viewers in the campaign finance process

· June 11, 2014, 9:20 pm   ·  Updated June 12, 2014, 12:08 pm

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If you’re looking for educational television, a recent Penn study suggests that you should consider tuning into Comedy Central.

Senior researcher at the Annenberg Public Policy Center Bruce Hardy and his team found that viewers of “The Colbert Report” were more knowledgeable about the finances of political campaigns than those who watched other news broadcasts by surveying 1,232 adults in the U.S. about SuperPACs — which are used to collect campaign funds — and tax exemption policies and comparing the different news programs each citizen watched.

“Colbert showed us the process, compared to the inverted pyramid structure of news, which basically just tells you ‘this is a SuperPAC.’ Colbert’s treatment was much more engaging, which led to retention of information,” Hardy said in an email statement.

The research team conducted statistical analyses comparing the influence of news shows on level of knowledge, while controlling for socio-demographic varilables, political orientation, general political knowledge and political engagement, Hardy said.

The researchers attributed the educational success of Colbert’s program to two main factors: his use of narrative style and satirical humor.

By creating his own SuperPAC — Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow — on the show, Colbert provided his viewers with a more thorough understanding of how SuperPACs operate. With each episode, Colbert led his audience through the process of legally creating and raising funds for his SuperPAC. Viewers could engage directly by making their own contributions to Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.

The SuperPAC series earned Colbert his second Peabody award in April 2012. Later that year, he announced that he was dissolving Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow — but, as Hardy’s study demonstrates, viewers have carried its message with them.

“I am not saying that mainstream news should set up their own SuperPACs, but the use of narrative to show the process of creating one was a very successful teaching tool Colbert employed,” Hardy said.

The researchers suggested that Colbert’s integration of comedy and news allowed him to more effectively communicate with viewers.

“Annenberg Public Policy Center has done studies in the past showing that political satire shows... are extremely effective in teaching people political literacy because they are also funny,” research assistant for the study and LPS student Madison Russ said. “If you’re laughing about something and they make a joke but it’s also true, you’re more engaged, which leads to increased retention.”

The research team hoped to contribute to the existing dialogue on the most efficient methods of teaching.

“I hope that a study like this will spark a bigger conversation about news media,” Russ said. “There cannot just be one news model. Every type of news is useful in its own way.”

Contributing to the discussion himself, Colbert commented on the study’s findings in a recent segment of “The Colbert Report” by comically instructing other news networks to follow his example and apologizing for being too informative.

Hardy said that seeing Colbert discuss his research was “definitely a highlight of [his] career so far.”

“Let that be a lesson to you, Fox News: show, don’t tell,” Colbert said. “I let you down, nation. Clearly, I must work harder at informing you less.”

The print version of this article features the headline "Colbert is more effective than the classroom," which does not accurately portray the study. Hardy's team compared The Colbert Report to other news sources, not to educational institutions. The DP regrets the error.

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