In Stephen Colbert's Civics Lesson: How Colbert Super PAC Taught Viewers About Campaign Finance in Mass Communication and Society [paywalled], a study by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, scholars surveyed people whose knowledge of campaign finance issues came from watching The Colbert Report's segments on super PACs. They concluded that, when compared to people who learned about campaign finance from traditional news sources (as opposed to a satirical program), Colbert viewers had a better grasp of the issues, thanks to the satirical structure and the use of narrative. The study specifically calls out the traditional reporterly convention of the "inverted pyramid" as a poor way to capture interest and convey nuance to an audience.
The study, published
in Mass Communication and Society, tested "The Colbert Report"
against CNN, Fox News, MSNBC,
and broadcast nightly news, as well as talk radio and
newspapers as sources of political information.
The study, "Stephen Colbert's Civics Lesson,"
was based on
survey data from 1,232 adults 18
13, 2012 and Dec. 23, 2012.
Watching "The Colbert Report"
served as "an extended civics lesson," the researchers said. The
not only increased people's perceptions that they knew more about political financing, but
increased their actual knowledge, and did so
a greater rate than other news
increased knowledge about
super PACs and 501(c)(4)s, but
daily newspaper, listening to talk radio,
and watching Fox
"Colbert did better than any other news source at teaching," Hardy said. "There were two
reasons. First was the narrative st
ructure. 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."
The researchers said that the use of a continuing narrative in which the humorist crossed from
being an ob
server to an active participant engaged viewers more than the traditional approach
news media. The "inverted pyramid" used in
news stories, in which the most
important news comes first, has been compared with "being told the punchline before the joke,"
the study noted.