Is Watching Late-Night Comedy TV Polarizing You?

Nick Shereikis
September 13, 2021

I believe political polarization to be the current most pressing threat to American democracy. It short-circuits government, drains our economy, and kills public faith in key national institutions. And, arguably even more worryingly, it directly affects our relational and social health — some research even suggests that polarization within families can have meaningful repercussions for interaction in day-to-day life or at holiday meals. Left unchecked, this political disease will bring our country to a standstill.

Coincidentally (or maybe uncoincidentally), this pronounced rise in American polarization almost directly parallels the rapid evolution of our national media consumption habits. This digital transformation is epitomized in the breakneck re-centering of political news content in entertainment media — an every-growing number of young voters now turn to shows like Last Week Tonight or The Daily Show for their political news, rather than programs on CNN or NBC. Over a third of American youth now report consuming late-night political comedy television at least once a week; at the same time, polarization is reaching record highs.

When I recognized these disconcertingly simultaneous phenomena, I decided to do a little research. Titled “Laughing Matters: Late-Night Political Comedy Television & Individual Affective Polarization,” my study tested for a meaningful relationship between The Daily Show and subsequent audience polarization. I grounded my project in existing literature, as well as anecdotal experience — comedy television programs often rely on satire to critique political issues, and when those political issues are already entangled with someone’s personal identity, it makes sense that this snowball effect could result in radicalizing or polarizing anger (among other emotions).

I eventually designed an experimental survey to test for a relationship between watching The Daily Show and individual-level polarization. I ultimately surveyed 707 American Amazon MTurk users, and compensated each for their time. I randomly provided each respondent with either a three-minute video clip, in which Trevor Noah critiques President Trump’s border wall construction, or an alternate transcript of the clip deceptively attributed to CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Once finished consuming their allotted content, participants answered a survey, designed to gather demographic information and measure levels of polarization after exposure to their treatment using a traditional 'feeling thermometer.'

Once I'd eliminated extraneous responses (independents, anyone who incorrectly answered a basic content check question, etc.), I ran several bivariate and multivariate regressions to see if I could find any meaningful relationship between watching The Daily Show and audience political polarization. Initial bivariate models testing for a relationship between treatment exposure and each of my two elemental dependent variables suggested a relationship between watching TDS and favorability (p-value: 0.03), but not social distance (p-value: 0.1723). Further multivariate models failed to show any significant relationships concerning treatment, but did indicate that every other independent variable mattered (i.e. age, average media consumption, partisanship).

So, what does this mean? It means that shows like The Daily Show do impact audience members' perceptions of presented content and figures, but don't seem to impact their perceptions of members of their opposing party. Is watching late-night comedy television polarizing you? It likely is, but more research will need to be done.

Though I found significance for only one isolated component of affective polarization, it seems clear that late-night political comedy television does have the capacity to affect political behavior. Given a better-designed study with a longer time frame — specifically one involving repeated exposure — it is likely these effects would become more evident. It makes sense that lifelong identity would matter more than a single three-minute treatment, so to successfully repeat this project, it would have to be conducted over a much longer time frame.

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