Political Communication  

Looking Beyond the Punchline: The Effect of Political Entertainment on Evaluations of Political Candidates

What do Donald Trump, Al Gore, John McCain, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren all have in common? It’s pretty obvious: they’ve all been on “Saturday Night Live.”

TV has long been a major source of political information for Americans, especially when election time nears. In fact, 74% of Americans reported getting their news about the candidates for the 2020 presidential election from TV. With so many people getting at least a portion of their political information from TV programming, it is clearly important to understand exactly how that programming impacts viewers and their perceptions of politicians.

There are very different ways that TV shows can deliver political information, ranging from traditional, formalized newscasting to “soft” programming, like infotainment, that often focuses on political humor. Younger Americans are especially likely to watch political infotainment programming, sometimes excluding traditional political broadcasts entirely.

There is a lot of variation within the political infotainment category itself, ranging from typical late-night programming that features informal interviews with political figures to full-on satire and parody seen in sketch shows like “Saturday Night Live. What happens with these different types of political programming? When you see a political candidate appear on a late-night talk show or sketch comedy program, does that affect the way that you view them and your assessment of their political viability? Is that different from the way you might view them if you watch them on a traditional hard news broadcast?

To answer these questions, researchers from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications conducted an experiment looking at viewer responses to then-presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (or her likeness) appearing on different types of political TV programming. Doctoral student Eliana DuBosar and Public Relations Chair and Associate Professor Myiah Hutchens assessed study participants’ ratings of Warren’s trustworthiness, electability and personal traits after having them watch a clip of her in one of three different contexts: answering questions on NBC news, taking part in an informal interview on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” or seeing a comedians’ portrayal of her answering questions on “Saturday Night Live.”

Results suggested that different types of political programming could indeed affect viewers’ levels of trust in Warren. Overall, those that viewed Warren in traditional news programming rated her as less trustworthy than those who watched her on “The Tonight Show.” Trust appeared to be the only trait that was significantly affected, as type of programming didn’t lead to a change in participants’ ratings of her electability or her personal traits.

To better understand what was happening with the evaluations of trust, the researchers added an additional layer to their analysis. They compared the participants’ assessments of Warren’s trustworthiness against their levels of political knowledge, to see if those with either high or low knowledge were responding differently to the different types of political program.

This did seem to be the case. As political knowledge increased, participants that saw Warren’s likeness on “Saturday Night Live” were more likely to rate her as trustworthy compared to traditional news. Conversely, higher levels of political knowledge meant that participants watching Warren in a traditional broadcast were more likely to give her lower ratings of trustworthiness.

The results from this study highlight several important aspects of political programming on TV. Programming type clearly matters and can shift the way that viewers feel about the political candidates. It isn’t so simple as a positive/negative relationship, however. While different types of infotainment increased viewers’ trust in Warren, it didn’t affect their views of her electability or her personal traits. In addition, viewers of the same type of programming responded very differently depending on their own levels of political knowledge.

The study demonstrates that while TV can indeed influence our opinions, it doesn’t do so in the same way for all viewers. The more we study these types of influences, the better these types of programs can be tailored to their audiences in order to make them useful sources of political information.

The original article, “Looking Beyond the Punchline: The Effect of Political Entertainment on Evaluations of Political Candidates,” was published online in the Atlantic Journal of Communication on April 27, 2023.

Authors: Eliana DuBosar, Myiah Hutchens

This summary was written by Vaughan James, Ph.D.



Posted: June 26, 2023
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