New Study Links ‘The Colbert Report’ to Presidential Election Campaign Knowledge

It looks like watching “The Colbert Report” can help viewers learn a thing or two about campaign financing.

A new study at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that those who tuned in to watch host Stephen Colbert set up a super PAC and 501(c)(4) organization during the last presidential election cycle were better informed about campaign financing and the role of money in politics than viewers of other news channels and shows.

“It’s the first study actually showing that Colbert is doing a better job than other news sources at teaching people about campaign financing,” said Bruce W. Hardy, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a senior researcher at the APPC. “Consistently, we found that Colbert did better than every other news source we included in our model.”

The study, dubbed “Stephen Colbert’s Civics Lesson,” was published online and tested “The Colbert Report” against CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and broadcast nightly news as well as talk radio and newspapers as sources of political information. It was based on phone survey data from 1,232 adults 18 years or older who were interviewed between Dec. 13, 2012 and Dec. 23, 2012.

Researchers said Colbert’s show increased viewers’ perceptions in that they knew more about political financing and also increased their actual knowledge, doing so at a greater rate than other news sources. Reading a daily newspaper, listening to talk radio and watching Fox News were cited as other activities that increased knowledge about super PACs and 501(c)(4)s, but to a lesser degree.

“Colbert did better than any other news source at teaching,” Hardy said. “There were two reasons. First was the narrative structure. He walked us through creating a super PAC and every episode was a continuation of that story. And second was the use of humor and satire.”

Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” has taken a critical and satirical look at the world of campaign financing since 2011, when former federal election commission chairman Trevor Potts advised Colbert on how to set up a political action committee.

Though a 2008 study of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” found it less effective than traditional news media at informing viewers about the Supreme Court nominating process, the current study suggests that the two examples are very different since “The Colbert Report” succeeds by allowing Colbert to play an activist role.

That study concluded that “Colbert’s efforts were educational, not just a proliferation of jokes.”

The co-authors of the study were Jeffrey A. Gottfried, a research associate at the Pew Research Center, Kenneth M. Winneg, managing director of survey research at APPC, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of APPC.

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