Opinion: Could Stephen Colbert Be Considered a Journalist?

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September 30, 2020

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(HOUSTON, Texas) — Reporters, producers, editors, and anchors are just some of the job titles that fall under the umbrella of journalism. However, TV personalities create a gray area of journalism. Some are perceived as journalists but what about comedians who host news-like broadcasting, such as Stephen Colbert? He presents facts that serve the public, but is he truthful and unbiased? 

Colbert hosted his own TV show “The Colbert Report” posing as a conservative pundit where for nearly a decade he parodied the conventions of TV news broadcasting. This brought something different to the table since most of his news-adjacent work was as a correspondent for “The Daily Show.”

He also entered the political realm when he hosted former Federal Election Commission (FEC) chairman, Trevor Potter, who helped him create his own super PAC. He had dozens of segments titled “Colbert Super PAC” where Potter would explain how these super PACs work and how they’re funded. In its initial filing with the FEC, the group reported raising more than $1 million. Some of the money was donated to college students wanting to create their own super PAC and the rest to charities.

These episodes were beneficial to the public and could have helped people make better-informed decisions, according to a study from Annenberg Public Policy Center. 

“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 Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania. “Consistently, we found that Colbert did better than every other news source we included in our model.”

Researchers studied phone survey data from over 1,200 adults 18 years or older and found that Colbert’s segments made viewers feel more informed about campaign financing compared to viewers of news channels such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. 

The news industry presents the most important information first, coined as the inverted pyramid, but this is compared with “being told the punchline before the joke,” the study states.

Using a continuing narrative, by building from each “Colbert Super PAC” episode, it allowed Colbert to be an active participant who learns how super PACs work. His use of humor and satire through this narrative is what made him stand out. 

Though this content was factual it is not considered journalistic since he doesn’t remain unbiased in his presentation. A vital factor according to the Pew Research Center core principles of journalism. 

What about “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”? CBS describes Colbert’s role “where he talks with an eclectic mix of guests about what is new and relevant in the worlds of politics, entertainment, business, music, technology, and more.”

Does interviewing a mix of guests make him a journalist? How is that different from a TV news anchor interviewing a mix of guests?

He is verifying all the facts through these interviews thus staying loyal to the public and maintaining an obligation to the truth. Recently, one could even argue he is remaining as unbiased as possible. 

In mid-September Colbert announced during the show “Better Know a Ballot,” a website that includes nonpartisan voter information and customized video messages from Colbert for each state explaining how to vote in the 2020 election. 

“Some states do not allow you to cite coronavirus as a reason to vote absentee. Some states automatically send you an absentee request form, but not a ballot, and some states put chili on top of their spaghetti. That has nothing to do with the election but come on, Cincinnati, it’s confusing,” Colbert said. “So, I wanted to help make things easier for anyone who should be voting, which is everyone.”

For example, if you click on Texas it provides links to voter registration, absentee ballots, and voting in person, including the deadlines for each. And they provide verified sources such as the Texas Secretary of State website. 

The video message is still pending for Texas but other states, like Idaho, have one. Through light jokes he explains the process of registering to vote, requesting absentee ballots, voting in person, each with their respective deadlines.

By providing important information like “Colbert Super PAC” or through transparency on betterknowaballot.com, Stephen Colbert acted journalistically. He adds value to this gray area of journalism where people receive their news through non-conventional ways but the use of humor and satire wouldn’t define him as a journalist.

Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Stephen-Colbert

http://www.cc.com/shows/the-colbert-report

https://publicintegrity.org/politics/pac-profile-americans-for-a-better-tomorrow-tomorrow/

https://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/stephen-colberts-civics-lesson-or-how-a-tv-humorist-taught-america-about-campaign-finance/

Stephen-Colberts-Civics-Lesson_release_6-02-14_Final.pdf

https://www.cbs.com/shows/the-late-show-with-stephen-colbert/about/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5THPwpQYFg

https://www.betterknowaballot.com/

 

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