Marisa A Lubeck. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage References, 2009.
Satire is a literary genre that employs humor when making commentary on individuals or activities and their perceived vices, shortcomings, or mistakes. In satire, humor is used to underscore an opinion or point about an issue or event. Most often, satirists use wit to criticize or attack something of which they disapprove. Parody (or spoofs), sarcasm, exaggeration, and analogy are defining literary tools of satire that help create its humorous tone.
In journalism, satire most commonly pokes fun at the news, or uses parody portrayed as conventional news. While satirical news is defined by its comedic nature, using deadpan humor to create what is called “fake news,” its underlying objective is to make statements about real people, events, and trends, often with the intent of influencing change. In this way, it is usually fundamentally biased. This objective also highlights a key difference between satire of news and parody of news: While parody uses humor for humor’s sake, news satire employs humor to attain the greater result of social criticism and/or promote change. Politics and current events are common themes in news satire, although the genre is not limited to them.
An early example of satire in news is The Spectator, an English newspaper that ran in the early 1700s. Created by popular writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, the newspaper consisted of one long essay narrated by a fictional character that would report and critique a single aspect of the news each day. Unlike a typical newspaper that would report hard news, The Spectator was satirical in a number of ways. First, the use of a fictional character to present real information allowed for variation in tone and a less systematic reporting style, providing a sense of intimacy through storytelling and creating an element of entertainment. Its application of humor, for example, is definitive of news satire. Furthermore, The Spectator provided commentary beyond objective news reporting with the distinct intent to influence change in societal behavior and mindset. This fundamentally satirical goal was clearly evidenced by the newspaper’s mission to “enliven Morality with Wit, and to temper Wit with Morality.”
Newspapers are the oldest form of news satire, at least as old as conventional journalism in America. In American journalism, one of the most famous news satirists was Samuel Clemens, more popularly known as Mark Twain. In the 1870s, Clemens worked as a young reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper in Nevada. He was relieved of his position at the Enterprise for publishing occasional spoof articles that were misconstrued by editors and readers as real. Clemens went on to publish what were deemed “hoaxes” in other newspapers across the country, for which he was also reprimanded.
While the genre of news satire has thus been around for centuries, its prevalence within American journalism dramatically increased with changes in technology. From the rise of the telegraph before the Civil War, to the birth of broadcasting in the early twentieth century, and on to the opening of the Internet to commercial use in 1995, technology has intensified the speed and breadth of mass communication and brought a new, grander scope to the genre of new satire. Today, news satire is disseminated rapidly on a wide scale due to the interconnectedness of modern technology, permeating popular culture and serving as an eminent source of news information for tech-savvy American youth.
One of the most popular satirical news publications today is The Onion, a newspaper created in 1988 that has since expanded into a multifaceted “fake news” organization. The Onion was first published by Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson, two juniors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1996, the paper’s website began, quickly garnering national attention. It was bought by Comedy Central in 2000, at which point the print version began national distribution. The Onion went on to develop a daily web video broadcast in 2007, The Onion News Network. Most recently, a film based on the newspaper appeared as The Onion Movie.
The Onion is satirical in that it parodies traditional news in its articles, reporting fake stories about local, national, and international events and politics, usually to create underlying social or political commentary. In the early 2000s, it parodies the style of popular newspaper USA Today with its use of bright graphics and statistical pie charts, as well as featured sections like “News in Brief,” “Opinion,” “American Voices” (“What do you think?”), and “Infographic.” The Onion even has a fictional history with a list of fictional contributing writers and editors. In this way, aside from the paper’s satirical content, the paper is itself a large satire.
Broadcast news satire arose with the advent of radio news in the early twentieth century, but became more prevalent during the satire boom of the late 1950s in the United Kingdom. A generation of satirical writers popularized satire on television. A cornerstone of this satire renaissance was the television show That Was the Week That Was, a popular satirical news program that aired on BBC Television in 1962 and 1963. In America, the NBC television network adapted this British program into Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a predominantly political comedy show that played from 1968 through 1973. A satirical news sketch that aired as part of the show is an early example of popular televised news satire in the United States. The segment “Laugh-In Looks at the News” parodied network news with a fake anchor giving a comical report on recent news stories, both fake and real. The sketch also satirized historical events and predicted bizarre events far into the future.
Along with Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update” segment helped usher in the satire boom in the United States, reaching an audience of about 30 million people every week during its formative years of 1975 through 1980. “Weekend Update” is a satirical news sketch that parodies political and current events, based on That Was the Week That Was. The segment was created and originally hosted by Saturday Night Live (SNL) comedian Chevy Chase and was introduced on SNL‘s original broadcast on October 11, 1975. Developed during a pivotal time that included President Richard Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam War, it made light of current events while emphasizing the perceived shortcomings of American politics, thus serving as news satire. “Weekend Update” continues to run as a comedic news program parodying mainstream broadcast journalism.
Perhaps the best known broadcast news satire program in the early twenty-first century is Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It premiered in 1996 but rose to popular notoriety when Jon Stewart replaced Craig Kilborn as host in 1999. Unlike Kilborn, Stewart also serves as writer and executive producer of the show. A quintessential “fake news” program, The Daily Show parodies political figures and mainstream media while satirizing real news, drawing most of its stories from American politics and then mockingly criticizing them. The show’s popularity led to the creation of a spin-off, The Colbert Report, hosted by Stephen Colbert, formerly a conservative “correspondent” on The Daily Show. This news satire program parodies political pundit shows such as Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor. A common determinant of news satire as opposed to straight parody, both Comedy Central programs are seen as politically biased, most often using sarcasm to mock and criticize conservative people and politics.
On the Web
Serving as a growing outlet for journalism, the web has also heightened access to and popularity of news satire. It has also exacerbated some of the problems with “fake news.”
Although news satire has been on the web since its beginning, The Onion‘s website, created in 1996, has been the most influential source of satirical news online. Since its inception, myriad news satire articles have been posted across the Internet, often as website articles or on blogs, and hundreds of satirical news websites have been created. Some have been designed to collect popular news parody articles. http://HumorFeed.com, for example, runs a news satire headline feed with over 60 contributing “fake news” sites.
A fundamental problem with news satire is its ability to be misinterpreted as real by both audiences and even mainstream media. Its use of deadpan humor, which is more covert than typical comedy, makes the “fakeness” of news satire comparatively less apparent and more easily misper-eived as actual news. The web intensifies this because of its abilities to repost pieces of news satire out-of-context and disseminate such pieces so speedily. The result is heightened room for misapprehension and confusion concerning what is real and what is parody.
Furthermore, satire is often criticized for defying the conventions of traditional journalism. Neither conventional news nor blatant comedy, satire often escapes the editorial processes of conventional journalism and is less subject to censure. Web publications, including blogs and articles posted on personal websites, are even less subject to review because they may be posted by anyone and escape any process of editing, thereby heightening the confusion. The result is widespread dissemination of satirical pieces whose parodied news has not been checked for accuracy and is less likely to be censured.
Prevalence and Popularity
News satire’s integration in American popular culture is demonstrated by the popularity of “fake news” programs and publications. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is a notable example. In March 2007, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism asked Americans to name the journalist they most admire. Jon Stewart ranked fourth on the final list, following network news anchors Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather. The presence of a satirist on such a list underlines the integration of news satire within American culture. Senator John Edwards used The Daily Show as a forum to announce his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in September 2003, serving as another example of the conflation of satirical and real news.
Statistics on readership and viewership of satirical news publications and programs further demonstrate the popularity of news satire. For example, The Onion‘s national print circulation is over 700,000. Likewise, its website is visited by 3 million readers every week, and the Onion News Network is accessed 5 million times each month. The Daily Show has won 11 Emmy Awards and has been nominated for an Emmy seven further times, and Nielson ratings report that the program reaches over 1.5 million viewers per episode. Likewise, The Colbert Report has been nominated for four Emmy awards between 2004 and 2008, and in 2006, the Merriam-Webster dictionary publisher named the show’s neologism “truthiness” Word of the Year.
News satire has had measurable effects on the public in recent years. Satirical news draws a relatively young audience. The Daily Show, for example, has a mean viewership age of 35, while over 60 percent of The Onion‘s website readers are between the ages of 18 and 44—the demographics that appeal to most advertisers.
The Daily Show is a commonly cited barometer for the effect of “fake news” on political opinion. For example, a 2006 Baumgartner and Morris study demonstrated that Daily Show viewers exposed to political comedy tended to rate politicians parodied by the show more negatively than nonviewers. Likewise, Daily Show viewers demonstrated higher levels of cynicism toward both media and the electoral system at large. Yet these same study participants reported comparatively high levels of confidence in understanding current American politics.
News satire is an increasing source of political news information for American youth. According to a 2004 Pew Research Center poll, 21 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds learn about presidential campaigns from satirical news shows, which is almost equal to the 23 percent who report getting their political information from conventional network news.
The use of satirical news as primary news source has had discernible effects on the political awareness and participation of American audiences. In 2004, the National Annenburg Election Survey found that “fake news” viewers were better informed on political happenings and current affairs than those who relied solely on traditional news media. A quiz given to nearly 20,000 American adults in mid-2004 demonstrated that news satire watchers had more knowledge about the backgrounds of political candidates and candidates’ stances on issues than those who did not watch political satire. Moreover, Daily Show viewers knew the most about election issues, as compared to viewers of conventional news and straight comedy shows such as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Show with David Letterman. Furthermore, while concern has been raised regarding the high levels of political cynicism associated with news satire viewers, a 2008 Gao and Brewer study linked political comedy viewing with increased levels of political participation. This study concludes that exposure to political comedy shows, including satirical news programs, is positively associated with increased participation in political campaigns and membership in a political organization.
Satire has affected journalism and journalists as well. A 2007 study by communications researcher Lauren Feldman underscores the point that, during a year when young Americans’ traditional news media consumption was decreasing, their attention to late-night comedy programs as sources of political information was on the rise. Through examination of discourse surrounding satire programs such as The Daily Show, the study found that many journalists have recognized this trend and begun using such programs as forums to reflect upon the nature of their work and the current state of journalism in general. The study concludes that the once rigid distinction between news and entertainment is blurring and that journalists themselves are reconsidering the dividing conventions between straight and satirical news.
Television and radio personality Rachel Maddow is a popular journalist who has adopted this merging of news reporting styles in her daily MSNBC series The Rachel Maddow Show and her Air America Radio program of the same name. While Maddow’s show is news-based, its fundamental tone is humorous, employing satirical commentary in her comedic, often playfully sarcastic discussions of the day’s headlines. The show is fundamentally satirical in that it uses humor to poke fun at news, ultimately expressing Maddow’s subjective views on the topics at hand. Maddow therefore strays from traditional news reporting by creating a news-entertainment blend, demonstrating the phenomenon discussed in Feldman’s 2007 study. As the show’s subject is real daily news, it also serves as an example of satire that does not employ parody, thus illustrating a difference between the two genres. Maddow has been criticized for the satirical tone of her commentary. In October 2008, for example, conservative speech-writer David Frum was interviewed on the television show, and he expressed disapproval of Maddow’s use of brazen sarcasm, maintaining that it contributes to deterioration of the political culture. The dispute exemplifies news satire’s potential for prompting social contention.
In journalism, satire has been employed as a form of commentary on political issues and current events, using parody, sarcasm, and similar forms of deadpan humor to emphasize a point or critique such subjects. Its popularity has proliferated as communication technology has made news satire more easily and quickly accessible to the masses. Today, The Onion, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update,” and The Rachel Maddow Show are all examples of influential satirical news in American popular culture. Myriad studies have demonstrated palpable effects that news satire has on young audiences as a result of their great popularity, subsequently blurring the lines between conventional and “fake” news.