Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Comedians are not journalists—plain and simple

Political satire is important, but it is not news

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By Lauren Sointu, Collegian contributor

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In William Keve’s Massachusetts Daily Collegian article last week, he opens by arguing that “John Oliver, a British comedian, is arguably the most influential investigative journalist in the country.”

There’s one problem with this statement: he’s not an investigative journalist. Oliver has admitted it himself. Asked if he believed his show should be classified as investigative journalism, his answer was straightforward: “No. There’s a pretty simple answer to that. No, it is not. No, we are a comedy show so everything we do is in pursuit of comedy.”

Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show has made similar comments on his relationship with the world of news. “I’m not in the news business, I’m still in the comedy business,” he said to The Hollywood Reporter.

Noah and Oliver make these comments because they realize that one of the main principles of journalism is the idea that news should be delivered in an impartial manner. By separating themselves from the title of “journalist,” they are not required to hold themselves to this standard. This separation can be a good thing — by calling themselves comedians, they are not only given the artistic power to turn their segments into whatever they want, but they’re also allowed to present on topics that, in a traditional setting, are usually overshadowed by more urgent news. As a result, they can create long segments discussing topics that a typical newscast wouldn’t have time to cover.

The problem isn’t that these comedians are presenting current events with a comical spin. The problem with shows such as “Last Week Tonight is that viewers forget that they are simply watching a comedian’s routine. Instead, they take Oliver and Noah’s liberal-leaning comments as affirmation of their own ideas, and by seeing them as investigative journalists they accept it as fact rather than considering that the comedians may be skewing the information for the sake of getting a laugh.

As shows like these rise in popularity, there is a constant demand for more of them. In a 2009 poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports, one-third of Americans under the age of 40 saw comedic news reports as a viable alternative to traditional news thanks to the combination of entertainment value and information they can provide. This shift in reverence for the modern comedian is society-wide. Since late-night shows have become more fearless in their partisanship and criticism of those and power, “The Atlantic noted that they are now seen as “public intellectuals” with the ability to speak up about societal issues.

A study from Ohio State University concluded that, upon studying the correlation between political interest and individually-chosen news sources, those who had lower interest in politics were more likely to choose satirical news over serious news as a means of consumption. This shows us that while satire can be a gateway to those less interested in politics, it also could signify that this demographic isn’t looking any further after consuming the satirical reporting, and thus accepting it as fact. It also shows that these satirists have more political power than we may realize — they can easily influence those who don’t collect their news from other sources and cross-reference the information they just received.

The rest of Keve’s article emphasizes the importance of political satire, and I don’t disagree with him. My point isn’t that these shows are a bad thing—political satire can provide us with new perspectives on our government and how policies impact us while allowing us to mock those in power. My point instead is that it’s important to recognize the fact that satire cannot be classified as news, and satirists like Oliver and Noah cannot be classified as journalists.  Now more than ever, it’s important to draw a line between satire and genuine reporting. In the age we live in, the dispersion of “fake news” plagues the media world. While the information these comedians are presenting is fact-based and not technically “fake,” it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, they’re simply comedians cracking a joke.

Lauren Sointu is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]

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