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Live from New York: Political Parody and the Press

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"Mitt Romney is now in London to see his horse compete in the dressage event. Dressage is kind of like horse ballet. Finally something that connects Romney with the average American voter." -Jay Leno, July 24

As we make our way to the presidential election on November 6, Obama and Romney's favorability ratings will likely drift north -- and occasionally south. And although journalists and pundits will be tempted to attribute these downward shifts in public opinion to the punchlines of late night comedians, perhaps they should think twice.

For although it may be a tempting storyline, it's probably not that simple.

During the 2008 presidential campaign season, Tina Fey's timely impersonations of GOP vice-presidential candidate, Governor Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live attracted overwhelming attention, both on television and online. Throughout the campaign, the press buzzed about the possibility that Fey's impersonations had a negative impact on Palin's favorability ratings and the subsequent decline in the GOP ticket, a phenomenon frequently dubbed "the Fey Effect."

My colleague Sarah Esralew (the Ohio State University) and I conducted a study, published in the current issue of Communication Quarterly, which examines whether Fey caused Palin's downfall or whether Palin may have brought about her own demise.

What we found points to a "Palin Effect" rather than a "Fey Effect."

To test just how influential Fey was on public opinion of Palin, we surveyed 255 undergraduate students before and after they watched an online video. Students were randomly assigned to watch the original Palin interview on CBS with Katie Couric, the SNL parody of that interview featuring Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, or an unrelated travel video.

When asked what came to mind when they thought about Sarah Palin, we found that both the CBS and SNL groups came away from their viewing experiences with increased concerns about Palin's lack of intelligence, competence and experience.

It seems that while the Fey impersonations may have primed audiences to think about some of Palin's weaknesses, these were the same concerns that came to mind after they watched the candidate herself.

Political communication scholars are increasingly acknowledging that the historical separation of entertainment and news is obsolete. There is a growing tendency for viewers to acquire political information -- and create political understanding -- from sources as diverse as cable news, Facebook, political films, late-night comedy, or crime dramas.

However, while all of these sources help us create political meaning, journalists need to be careful not to overstate the power of any one joke, show, or comedian. As our study illustrates, political humor is only as powerful as the reality that underlies it. Sometimes we need comedians to expose or crystallize that reality, but they cannot create it from scratch.

So why do journalists and pundits talk about the "impact" of political comedians as though it is a certainty?

One reason is news economics. It's good practice financially for journalists to talk about an impersonation and then show the latest clip from SNL -- it helps their ratings to include entertainment programming, and it also gives the networks preexisting content to fill air time.

Also, it's safer for journalists to enter the uniquely subjective world of political psychologizing -- "She's not smart enough" or "He's not authentic enough" -- through the back gate of political humor. In the case of Palin, for example, the media had been soundly criticized for their portrayal of Hilary Clinton during the 2008 primary campaign, so they were reluctant to appear sexist in a critique of Palin's intelligence or experience. Fey's impersonations presented reporters with a unique opportunity to raise concerns about Palin without having to take ownership of those critiques themselves.

All of this is not to say that political humor has no effect on opinions and perceptions. Pointed political satire, aimed at institutions, policies, and practices, can certainly prompt political conversations, considerations, and actions. Research has demonstrated that we pick up pieces of information, become politically motivated and interested, and often become aware of news stories or events we might otherwise have missed, all through watching political comedy.

But before journalists embrace a tempting juicy (and economically fruitful) narrative such as "Leno and Letterman hurting Romney/Obama," it's best to examine the reality on which those punch lines are based.

Chances are, like Palin in 2008, the candidate is hoisting himself on his own petard.

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