Columns

Vilsan ’19: News with a punch line

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, October 25, 2016

It is virtually impossible for today’s college students to escape political discourse and accompanying impassioned political debate on social media platforms. Peers proudly display their party loyalties on their profile pages and share articles that affirm their views, whether conservative or liberal. But there is a common thread across the aisle. College students on both sides increasingly rely on political satire and commentary rather than traditional news sources to form political opinions. As more and more college students are able to name the hosts of late-night shows on prime-time television than prominent journalists, I can’t help but wonder: Are political comedians threatening objective, investigative journalism?

Political commentary and satire fill Facebook and Twitter feeds, garnering millions of likes and views. But these political comedians have become more than entertainment; they have a real impact on people’s perceptions and knowledge about political issues. John Oliver, host of “Last Week Tonight,” has been on record numerous times denying the claim that his job can be likened to that of an investigative journalist. He claims his show is “comedy first and … comedy second.” But it is undeniable that his team conducts thorough investigations and research in order to provide viewers with relevant political commentary. It’s news with a punch line.

In this polarizing election cycle, bias in the news has been a controversial topic. Popular news sources such as CNN have received complaints from Donald Trump supporters that their coverage of the presidential election is too forgiving of Hillary Clinton’s many indiscretions. Trump himself actively promotes the assertion that the mainstream media is outwardly biased and uses its influence to sway the election. To an extent, the traditional news outlets do exhibit individual biases, though they claim objectivity. But late-night show hosts such as Stephen Colbert or Trevor Noah make no promises to be impartial. When you tune in, you know exactly what you’re getting, and you know whether or not it will reaffirm your prior beliefs and opinions.

On the one hand, news with a punch line is good news for millennial voters. It’s a great way to get young adults engaged in political discourse and excited about their right to express their opinions through voting. But there’s also an increasingly obvious downside to these political entertainment hybrids.

Ideally, objective journalism clearly lays out all the facts and allows readers to make informed decisions independent of the journalist’s personal beliefs. An informed citizenry relies on voters’ awareness of all candidates’ shortcomings and policy proposals. But as bias seeps into even the mainstream news industry, viewers know that they might as well flip to the entertainment channels instead. As millennial voters turn away from traditional media outlets and choose to get their political information from comedians-turned-political-commentators, they are essentially cornered into avoiding objectivity, even in the rare cases in which they may have embraced it.

Watching late-night shows shouldn’t replace investigative journalism in creating a political knowledge base. If we largely listen to the comedians who share our own political opinions (and then reinforce those beliefs with the echo chamber that is Facebook), we’ll likely never have to hear anything we don’t want to. That’s not productive for a thoughtful and engaging democracy. No candidate (particularly in this election cycle) is free of faults, and our forced over-reliance on this type of journalism gives us the dangerous power of selectively choosing which faults to magnify. Using entertainment journalism to cope with the madness in politics isn’t the right way to handle controversy.

In this polarizing election cycle, it takes a remarkable amount of restraint to keep one’s mouth shut about the latest political scandals. But objectivity must be protected, and investigative journalism must not be replaced by late-night comedy routines. The media is vital to maintaining a certain amount of transparency and holding our elected officials accountable. Glossing over relevant information for the sake of a comedy sketch is fine — that’s what entertainment is about. It becomes dangerous when this same entertainment replaces journalism itself.

Fabiana Vilsan ’19 can be reached at fabiana_vilsan@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.