“Research has found that citizens in the United States are more likely to turn to late-night comedy programs than to national newspapers for their election news. As we continue to observe these phenomena, it is increasingly more important to expand the research agenda as well” – claims Caroline V. Leicht. In this interview, based on the research article Nightly News or Nightly Jokes? News Parody as a Form of Political Communication: A Review of the Literature, Leicht elaborates on the consequences of the increasing popularity of political satire, gender stereotypes and US Politics.
PSR: In your PSR article, you argued that for some people, political satire is not only entertainment but also a source of political information. How widespread is this phenomenon?
Caroline V. Leicht: In the United States, it is certainly a widespread phenomenon. Political satire is a key element of the US-American entertainment industry. Programs like Saturday Night Live (SNL) have been on the air for almost 50 years and more recently, news parody shows like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report or Last Week Tonight have had wide success as they rose to prominence in the age of social media where content is spread more rapidly and more widely. The jokes and humour on these programs are highly political; however, it is not just a means to make fun of politics but also a means to provide political commentary and contextualization. In a way, it can help in making political processes and issues more accessible to viewers. A prominent example that comes to mind is John Oliver’s segment on Last Week Tonight about Net Neutrality in which he explains the issue in more depth and provides the background that citizens would need to engage in informed discourse about the topic. And there are many other examples like this. As I detail in my PSR article, studies have shown that there are real learning effects associated with watching these types of programs. In addition to this, research has found that citizens in the United States are more likely to turn to late-night comedy programs than to national newspapers for their election news. As we continue to observe these phenomena, it is increasingly more important to expand the research agenda as well. In my PhD project, I examine the role of gender in political satire representations of candidates, a subject that I believe is immensely important for this research area but has unfortunately remained substantially unexplored to date.
You argue that “Research has shown that these programs have real effects on political attitudes and candidate evaluations”. How does political satire affect its audiences? How can political satire programmes influence political behaviours or electoral behaviours?
In my PSR article, I identified three key strands of the literature that reflect the different types of audience effects: political knowledge acquisition, political attitudes, and political participation. First, research has found that political satire programs like The Daily Show feature substantive information about politics that is comparable to traditional news media, and experimental studies have confirmed that exposure to political satire can lead to higher levels of political knowledge. Second, the literature on political satire suggests that this media format can affect issue salience and candidate evaluations. We know that news media have the power to set the agenda for their respective audience, making some political issues or characteristics of political actors more salient than others through editorial decisions and filtering. The same is true for political satire, so the issues or versions of politicians presented in these programs could become more salient for audience members. And third, prior research has found that political satire can mobilize its viewers politically, for instance through calls to action. Political participation is often measured through voting, but a slightly different “real world example” that comes to mind is the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” organized by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in 2010, just a few weeks before the midterm elections in the US that year. Over 200,000 people turned out for this rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC – that certainly shows that political satire can mobilize audience members politically and in the real world. Taking these three types of audience effects into account and considering the similarities with more traditional news media, it just becomes even clearer that political satire is a media format that should receive more research attention in political science.
We know that news media have the power to set the agenda for their respective audience, making some political issues or characteristics of political actors more salient than others through editorial decisions and filtering. The same is true for political satire, so the issues or versions of politicians presented in these programs could become more salient for audience members.
In your recent research, you’ve undertaken an impressive analysis of SNL sketches from the 2016 election cycle, referring to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Could you elaborate on the conceptual framework of this research, as well as on your latest research on the 2020 Democratic Primaries?
We know that citizens turn to political satire for election news, and we know that political satire can have real effects on its audiences; however, there are still significant gaps in the research on political satire. The literature has thus far been primarily concerned with audience effects studies, the format of news parody shows, and partisanship as a mediating factor. In my PhD research, I thus decided to address these limitations by exploring the role of gender as a mediating factor for candidate representations and focusing on an understudied genre of political satire, namely sketch comedy. My current paper combines frameworks from the research on gendered media representations and political satire to make a novel theoretical and methodological contribution to the field. Role congruity theory and gendered framing built the basis for my research questions and hypotheses as I wanted to test whether the gender stereotypes and biases that have been observed in traditional news media are also present in political satire. Understanding these gendered representations of candidates is important because it provides insights into how voters perceive political processes and actors, particularly if we take into account that political satire has effects on candidate evaluations. To test my hypotheses, I examined all Saturday Night Live sketches about the 2016 and 2020 Democratic Primaries and general elections, using a mixed-methods approach consisting of content analysis – for which I developed a comprehensive coding scheme – and framing analysis.
What kind of gendered stereotypes were the most visible in your research?
It is still a working paper, so the results are preliminary, but the initial results reflect observations from studies of more traditional news media. Female candidates were often framed through more personal characteristics or relationships. For instance, sketches about Hillary Clinton often referenced her husband, former President Bill Clinton. In 2020, Kamala Harris was often portrayed as a maternal figure. An example of this is the SNL sketch about the first presidential debate: Harris (played by Maya Rudolph) enters the stage and tells Donald Trump (Alec Baldwin) and Joe Biden (Jim Carrey) to calm down, apologize for their rowdy debate behaviour, and then says she has snacks for them backstage for after the debate. She even refers to herself as “Momala” which is what the real Harris’ stepchildren call her. My initial results indicate that the male candidates were more likely to be framed through issues and policy proposals than the female candidates. So far, the results reflect a number of “typical” gendered stereotypes and show that representations and framing of candidates in political satire are indeed gendered. This is an important observation to make as it helps in tracing the origins of gendered biases observed in political processes and voting behaviours: Voters who watched the SNL sketches will have been exposed to gendered representations of the candidates as well as framing mediated by gender stereotypes, and this could influence their candidate evaluations.
What were the major differences in portraying the three analysed candidates in terms of masculine and feminine traits?
For my study, I built on existing works on gendered traits to categorize the SNL characterizations of the candidates. As an example of initial results: In the 2016 general election, Hillary Clinton was often characterized as “assertive” or as a “leader”, both of which are categorized as masculine traits in the coding instrument. A possible explanation for this portrayal could be that the real Clinton was “performing” a political leadership role as the presidential candidate and political leadership roles are still regarded in more masculine terms, as research has shown. We know that gendered characterizations of candidates have been observed in traditional news media coverage, so my results could be evidence that SNL is comparable to news media in this way. This would link back to what we talked about earlier: That political satire is comparable to traditional news media in several ways and therefore warrants more research attention as a political information source
My initial results indicate that the male candidates were more likely to be framed through issues and policy proposals than the female candidates. So far, the results reflect a number of “typical” gendered stereotypes and show that representations and framing of candidates in political satire are indeed gendered.
Can you think of any examples of political satire sketches/ shows reflecting on recent political turmoil, for instance in Ukraine or Iran?
Political satire does not always have to be something to laugh about, and I think certainly with the examples you mention, there is nothing funny about them at all. But political satire, at its core, is about speaking truth to power and about reflecting opinions, discourse or the mood of a given audience. And we can definitely observe this in the examples you mentioned. For instance, the Saturday after Russia invaded Ukraine, SNL did a very somber yet also political cold open. They had the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York perform “Prayer for Ukraine”. No wigs, no costumes, no jokes – just a somber two-minute song. I think that really captured the mood at the time. A few weeks later, SNL opened with a sketch about a fictional “Fox News Ukrainian Invasion Celebration Spectacular” in which Tucker Carlson (played by Alex Moffat) and Laura Ingraham (Kate McKinnon) “apologize” for previous comments in support of Russia and then proceed to host guests like Donald Trump (James Austin Johnson) to raise money for “the real victims of this invasion, the oligarchs.” The sketch does not make fun of the war, but rather offers a critique of media coverage, the focus on the war’s effect on oligarchs, and politicians’ statements. That is certainly something we can observe for these types of political topics, like the war in Ukraine or the current turmoil in Iran: Political satire offers critiques of news media coverage, critiques of international responses and politicians’ actions or lack thereof.
What are the key contributions your paper brings to the field?
As I outlined before, my research addresses gaps in the current literature on political satire. There was a bit of a trend for more political satire research around the 2008 and 2012 US elections, but there is still a lot that has not been explored. The research has thus far been focused primarily on news parody shows, audience effects and partisanship. My PhD research, including my current paper which we talked about earlier, instead focuses on sketch comedy, an understudied genre of political satire, and examines the role of gender in candidate representations. My current paper combines and builds on frameworks from different sub-fields and introduces a comprehensive coding scheme for the content analysis of sketches, thus making a novel theoretical and methodological contribution to the field as well. We know that citizens use political satire programs as news sources, so it is important that we, as researchers, consider these programs news sources as well and direct more research attention to this media format. Gendered representations and framing of candidates can lead to biases in voter perceptions and can affect voting behaviour. So, it is vital to understand these biases in the coverage, examine when and how they appear, and how they are perceived by audiences. And that is precisely what I am doing in my PhD research.
Leicht, C. V. (2022). Nightly News or Nightly Jokes? News Parody as a Form of Political Communication: A Review of the Literature. Political Studies Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/14789299221100339
Questions and production
Dr Eliza Kania, PSR/Brunel University London