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Danna Young

The Annenberg Election Survey and News Satire: Interview with Danna Young (part 1 of 2)


On September 21, 2004, the National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES) issued a press release entitled Daily Show Viewers Knowledgeable About Presidential Campaign. Though timed to appear the day after John Kerry's appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, it gained the most attention when it became part of the media frenzy over Bill O'Reilly's assertion that viewers of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart were "stoned slackers."

Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, a senior analyst at Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, was responsible for that press release. More specifically, she developed the portion of the NAES that addressed media use and public opinion, with a specific focus on how late night comedy affects the opinions of the voting public.

This is the first part of a two-part interview. (For Part 2 of this interview, click here.)

"Unfortunately, journalists don't understand that correlation does not equal causality... They're still trying to put it in that box -- "The Daily Show makes you smarter." Well, we don't know."

CP!: Let's start with the Survey that was quoted so far and wide. How did that come about? I understand it's the National Annenberg Election Survey - is [the late night comedy result] a specific subset of the Survey?

DGY: The Survey is the largest academic survey of the American electorate. We have a survey house doing about 300 interviews a night, and they've been in the field since last October [2003]. Because my dissertation is on late night comedy, and I'm employed as a researcher on the survey -- it's also one of the interests of the director of the survey, Kathleen Hall Jamieson -- they've allowed me to craft questions on late-night comedy exposure that got down to the nitty-gritty of actually what programs people are watching. A lot of surveys ask about late night comedy, like, "How many days in the past week did you watch shows like [Insert show name here Yes!]?' But then they never get to the heart of the matter, which is, "Which one?"

But that's just one piece of this huge survey that we work on, and there are one to two press releases that go out every week about various changes in people's opinions of candidates' performances. The late night thing was just my piece. There are four graduate students who work on this project, and then there's Kathleen, and there's Adam [Clymer, political director for the Survey], and there's Ken [Winneg], who manages the survey. And that's it! That's us, that's all the people that are working on this huge project.

CP!: And the survey firm too, right?

DGY: Right, who actually make the calls. But [we're] managing the data and changing the questions and analyzing the data.

CP!: So [the report by CNN, referencing the NAES press release] contained the most recent period for which you could get statistically reliable results [for The Daily Show's viewership]?

DGY: Correct. And I have a lot of different interests with late night comedy and its effects on people's agendas, how they feel about the candidates, how they'd rate the candidates on certain personality traits, particularly those traits that are mocked. But I'm also interested in late night comedy's relationship to other dimensions like cynicism, or learning, or knowledge.

So, the Director said, "Would you like to prepare a release about late night?" Because the candidates were showing up on these shows, and the news media love to talk about "What's the influence?"

CP!: And the timing was incredible, with the whole thing about Stewart appearing on O'Reilly's show --

DGY: That was totally unplanned. I found out that Kerry was appearing on Letterman on the 20th, and our press release was going out the 21st, so that's what I thought was gonna be the hook. And instead, it fell into this whole other narrative.

Unfortunately, journalists don't understand that correlation does not equal causality, and they like to talk about causality, because everything's cause-and-effect [to them]. They're still trying to put it in that box -- "The Daily Show makes you smarter." Well, we don't know.

CP!: -- It could in fact be the other way around, people who are smarter just happen to watch The Daily Show.

DGY: That's right. So, every time we talk about it, we're trying to make sure that they realize that the causality hasn't been ironed out yet. And I bet it's a little of both, I bet it's more one than the other, I'm sure that The Daily Show appeals to a certain kind of person. But I think that it would be ludicrous to say that you couldn't pick anything up through the show. [The show's producers] generally say that they don't influence public opinion. They also say that you'd need to know a lot to get the jokes in the first place. They admit all that.

CP!: But is that a little like Charles Barkley saying "I don't want to be a role model"?

DGY: Yeah! I think that, for them, it undermines what they do if everyone starts taking them really seriously. I don't think that's there's some sort of sneaky, "Yeah, we really do want to educate people and influence people, but we don't wanna talk about it." No! They're in there frantically putting this show together every day, trying to make the jokes as funny as they can, and it just so happens that it's about stuff that's maybe not on page one, maybe it's on page 10 of the newspaper.

CP!: I read from the CNN pop-up quiz that came from your data that Leno was more popular among the GOP, for example. [Do you feel] that political leaning affects [late-night comedians] at all, regardless of how conscious they are of it?

DGY: I don't know that it does, and I was actually surprised that [CNN] pulled that little statistic from the tables, because Leno's audience wasn't hugely different from Letterman's in terms of party identification. But as for The Daily Show viewers, they are far left. Calling oneself a "liberal" is, I guess, supposed to be a dirty word, but these are people who say, "I'm liberal."

DGY: But I read an online moderated chat with executive producer Ben Karlin of The Daily Show, and someone asked, "Does it scare you that maybe Kerry will win, and then you won't be able to make fun of the Bush Administration anymore?" And his reply was, "There are a lot of things in this world that scare me. That is so not one of them." And I think there's truth to that, because I think that they'd find something to make fun of regardless.

You know, Leno and Letterman have said that Bill Clinton is the gold mine. Especially Leno, Leno still makes Bill Clinton jokes. But it's because of the nature of the comedy that they do, it's just so different from profound or subtle political satire. You're going for the jugular -- "What does everyone know? Everyone knows that Bill Clinton is a sex-crazed man."

CP!: But according to CNN's take on your data, The Daily Show is more likely to be even-handed in its mockery, left versus right, whereas [CNN] referred to it an "incumbent effect," that Bush gets more of the take on Leno and Letterman. But I wonder whether, for example, with Letterman, if you've found that their audience tends to be more conservative and supportive of the War in Iraq, do you find that his content actually plays to that audience?

DGY: This is what we're looking at right now, with data from [early December 2003 to late March 2004], and when you look at the number -- this is where numbers don't always help -- when you look at the number of jokes made about the War in Iraq, there were a few more made by Leno than Letterman during that period, not a huge gap. But when you look at the actual jokes, the Letterman jokes are making fun of Saddam Hussein, so it's about the war, but it's not about how we can't find the weapons of mass destruction. It's making fun of how Saddam Hussein was found in this hole, and that's what he deserved. At that time, it appears that they weren't as likely as Leno jokes to talk about contextual issues surrounding the war.

And my co-author on the survey said, "Wasn't this about the time that Letterman went to visit the troops in Iraq?" And when we looked back, it turned out that it was.

CP!: So this is the deeper research that's going on behind the sort of top-level stuff that's getting into the news.

DGY: Yes. And that's the other thing that I think is a little misleading about CNN's interpretation that, "Oh, The Daily Show is even-handed in its mocking of Bush and Kerry." Well, we're talking about "Headlines," that very opening segment, it's five minutes, but if you look at the issue mentions, The Daily Show is much more likely to have in their "Headlines" segments about specific issues or policies. And if they're jokes about specific issues or policies, they're more likely to fall on the shoulders of the Bush Administration.

CP!: Can you identify when the political comedy influence started creeping into your interests?

DGY: My first year (at Annenberg), I had taken a class in the social psychology of communication, and my final paper in that class explored the psychology of humor. Which is a beast, a beast, a beast! Because you're talking about trying to impose logic on something that has no logic. I heard Ira Glass on This American Life on NPR say, "You know, sometimes, academics get all crazy, and they try to use a scientific approach to study stuff that just shouldn't be studied through science. Like those crazy people who are trying to explain what makes something funny. You can't do that." And that's what I do!

So I worked on this paper, and sure enough, there's a lot of literature going way back. Kant wrote about it, what makes something funny, why do people laugh? And it's about unmet expectations, and the intersection of two things that don't make sense, and you have to bridge them in your mind, and find a way to make them make sense simultaneously.

My advisor kind of ate it up, so I kept moving in that direction. And as I tied all this psychology literature into what humor is, and how it's understood, I realized that there are real strong implications for this process of humor comprehension. Because humor doesn't play by the rules, and because there's always a piece of information missing, when you get a joke, or when you're watching something satirical, because you have to bring something to bear on the text -- that says that there could be room for some kind of effect that's different from the kind of effect you would experience if something were just laid out seriously.

"Because humor doesn't play by the rules...that says that there could be room for some kind of effect that's different from the kind of effect you would experience if something were just laid out seriously."

DGY: So I came up with some hypotheses out of that, saying, because humor is understood this way, maybe here are some things that we should witness, when people are listening to humor. And because I was a political science major, all of my work is done in the realm of political science. So late night is a perfect, real world application of that.

What's tricky now that I'm finding, as I get further into it, is that Leno and Letterman are so different from Jon Stewart in terms of content, that I've had to take my theories and make them general enough that you can account for a lot, but also account for the fact that the kinds of humor structures that exist in a Leno and Letterman joke are not the same as the humor structures behind a Daily Show segment.

CP!: Yes, Leno and Letterman are just one-two, set-up/punchline, whereas it's not even close to that simple with Stewart.

DGY: Right. I have results from another experiment that suggests that people engage in completely different thought generation in response to humorous things than non-humorous things. And so, when you're reading a bunch of jokes, some say, "Well, it's just a joke," so of course you're less likely to get mad about it. If something pokes fun at a candidate you like, it's just funny, so of course you're not going to get mad about it. But why? Why wouldn't we get mad? The point is the same [as if it weren't delivered in joke form].

I'd argue that, because you have to take that moment to add that little extra piece, to make sense of it, you're a little bit distracted, and you're engaged in a kind of puzzle-solving, like, "Why is this funny?" It's subconscious, it just happens. But you're still using cognitive activity and cognitive resources to do that, instead of using that cognitive activity to say, "Wait, is this fair? Why did he say this? Where's their evidence? That's not fair! That's not true!"

And I did find that when you give people serious [non-funny] versions of these jokes, they're more likely to ask those questions, or say, "This seems biased, this doesn't seem fair."

CP!: But when it's a joke, it's more interactive, it involves them in the experience?

DGY: Correct, and basically they're having to come to the conclusion themselves. And there are a bunch of different things that could be at work. Another is the "Oh, I'm so smart that I got [the joke]" moment. Like, "Ha ha, look how clever I am!" And then that makes you feel good, and so,why be mad?

CP!: Because you're too busy patting yourself on the back.

DGY: That's right. I would argue that, just like the news, jokes can also make things salient in your mind.

(For Part 2 of this interview, click here.)