Opinion: Trevor Noah as a Comedic Journalist 

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September 30, 2020

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Trevor Noah hosts The Daily Show on Comedy Central. [Credit: Sean Gallagher]

(NEW YORK)- Political satire has always existed in the murky waters between what is classified as professional journalism and what isn’t. Does comedy override factual reporting? Can something be considered a reliable news source if there are jokes along the way?

The Daily Show, first aired on Comedy Central in 1996, has been at the heart of that debate since day one. When Trevor Noah took over the seat from Jon Stewart in 2016, he set out to put his own stamp on it as the son of a Black mother and white father from apartheid South Africa.

Thrown right into the news fire at the dawn of the Trump-era, Noah had no choice but to forge a path through the mud quickly and respectfully. Luckily, he did it, and he found a way to build a reputation as a credible journalist while remaining true to his comedic roots. 

Depending on the day, some episodes of The Daily Show rightfully have a more serious tone than others. The monologues following the murder of George Floyd contained fewer punch lines, and instead opted for in-depth discussions about what “systemic racism” and “defunding the police” really mean. But no matter the story, it’s clear Noah and his team are always navigating the push-and-pull between two goals: broadcasting valid information and getting the laughs.

One way to dissect this “journalist/not a journalist” debate is in the form of intent- specifically, the intent to inform versus the intent to entertain. All journalism should be produced with the intent to truthfully inform, adhering to the Pew Research Center’s first three core principles of journalism: obligation to the truth, staying loyal to the public, and verifying all the facts (we’ll get to the fourth principle in a minute). But a work can also have the intent to entertain simultaneously. If the information is accurate, blending it with a personal, creative voice should not be forbidden territory. It adds humanity. Blabbing for the sole purpose of entertainment is not journalism, but that isn’t Noah’s style. The key lies in the balance, and he’s figured it out.

In 2016, Sara Boboltz wrote an article in the Huffington Post after attending a panel at The New School about comedic news shows. Daily Show writers Daniel Radosh and Dan Amira both confirmed their team is “meticulous about making sure its stories have the facts straight, and even employs a dedicated fact-checker.” This fact-checker, Adam Chodikoff, said he never relies on secondhand sources. He emphasized the importance of making sure it’s clear to the audience whether something is a joke or not. 

The Daily Show employs writers who come from traditional journalism backgrounds (New York Magazine, NYT, etc.) and run the operation like any other newsroom. As well as being the face of the show, Trevor Noah is involved in the entire writing and producing process. Unlike other TV personalities who simply rattle off their unsubstantiated opinions to ignite controversy, Noah and his operation are much more committed to maintaining ethical standards, even while looking through a satirical lens.

Pew’s fourth core principle of journalism- remain as unbiased as possible- is undeniably the one Trevor Noah tiptoes around. Although he always pulls from a wide range of sources, you’ll certainly know his viewpoints on the subject before the episode is over. But isn’t this the case with most journalists today? Even if the reporting is completely factual, their personal biases are still there, just often disguised as the questions they ask or in their facial expressions and tone. 

In the American Press Institute’s guide for journalists, Walter Dean- director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists- writes that bias may serve to create narrative texture or make a story understandable… the job of journalists is not to stamp out bias. Rather, the journalist should learn how to manage it.”

Noah does just that. He uses his personal views to add context and empathy in hopes of broadening viewers’ perspectives. And when it comes to making jokes on The Daily Show, no one is off limits; the scales don’t unfairly tip one way or the other. Republicans and Democrats are all equally susceptible to a good poking.

Omar Gallaga from Poynter reported on a panel Trevor Noah did with CNN’s Jake Tapper at South by Southwest in 2019. Noah admitted his show has two missions: getting out the facts, and entertaining. “I strive to create a show that informs you about what’s happening in your world … I’m not trying to create a straight-up news show … If you can’t laugh at what’s going on, you’ll go crazy; you’ll be crying all the time,” he said.

Noah acknowledges his show is not sufficient as someone’s sole source of news. But even though he’s hunting for jokes, he takes his job very seriously.

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