‘Colbert Report’ best at teaching the public about campaign finance, study shows

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It shouldn’t be surprising that a make-believe conservative TV host will be the best at teaching the public about campaign finance.

Viewers of “The Colbert Report” during the 2012 presidential election cycle were able to follow “faux-conservative” Stephen Colbert as he set up a super PAC and 501(c)(4) organizations.

In a recent study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, Colbert’s viewers proved to be better informed about both campaign financing and the role money plays in politics than those who follow other news channels and shows.

 “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 senior researcher Bruce Hardy, lead author of the study from the APPC at the University of Pennsylvania. “Consistently, we found that Colbert did better than every other news source we included in our model.”

Published in Mass Communication and Society, the AAPC study compared “The Colbert Report” against CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, broadcast nightly news, and other sources of political info such as talk radio and newspapers.

The study, titled “Stephen Colbert’s Civics Lesson,” used phone survey data from 1,232 adults interviewed between Dec. 13 and Dec. 23, 2012 and were 18 years or older,

 “The Colbert Report” became “an extended civics lesson,” the researchers found, not only increasing individual’s perceptions that they were better informed on political funding, but giving them significantly more actual knowledge, and at a higher rate than other sources of news.

Among the other activities contributing to increased understanding of super PACs and 501(c)(4)s, but to a lesser degree, were reading daily newspapers, watching Fox News and listening to talk radio.

“Colbert did better than any other news source at teaching,” Hardy added, giving two reasons for its success. “First was the narrative structure. He walked us through creating a super PAC and every episode was a continuation of that story. And second was the use of humor and satire.”

Using a continuing narrative, where Colbert overlapped between being an observer and an active participant, was more engaging to viewers than the traditional news media approach. The “inverted pyramid,” a staple of journalism, were the most important news is near the beginning of the story, was likened to, “telling the punchline before the joke,” the study found.

“Colbert’s efforts were educational, not just a proliferation of jokes,” was the conclusion at the APPC.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.