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Aug. 13, 2004

No laughing matter:
Late night talk shows can turn young adults into cynics

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Late night talk shows seem to foster political cynicism among young Americans who rely on these shows for information, new research at the University of Michigan shows.

"These young Americans tend to undervalue the significance of their votes in the election, and they are also more likely to mistrust politicians," said Nojin Kwak, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies.

The findings indicated shows such as "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and the "Late Show with David Letterman," can demobilize young voters under certain conditions. For example, while newspaper reading generally boosts the likelihood of voting, its role as an electoral mobilizer is significantly smaller among regular viewers of late night talk shows, Kwak said.

Research has shown that during the last three decades, young adults have been less engaged in elections and other political activities. Kwak said that these shows could be a culprit for young adultsí political apathy because "the shows often present a cynical and negative portrait of candidates and campaign events, and young people rely on these shows as a quick way to learn about whatís happening on the political trail."

"Young adults, who sometimes have low political interest, are more affected by the talk show hostsí political dialogs because the information is not carefully examined," said Kwak, whose research interests include the effects of non-traditional media outlets—entertainment shows and the Internet—on politics.

The U-M study comes after a 2004 Pew Research Center report indicating that television comedy programs, including late night talk shows, are important sources of political information for young adults. In fact, 61 percent of adults younger than age 30 regularly or sometimes learn about political campaigns from comedy programs, such as "Saturday Night Live" and "The Tonight Show," according to Pew.

One finding in the U-M study is the significance of entertainment elites in young peopleís electoral participation. Viewers of late night talk shows are less likely to vote particularly when they perceive talk show hosts and other celebrities—the sources of negative depiction of politics on these shows—as trustworthy and convincing.

"Celebrities and entertainers have not only been advocates for causes and charities, but they have also attracted media attention on their political stances and even run for public office," he said. For instance, a year ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy for California governor on "The Tonight Show." He won the recall election in October. And the findings suggest celebrities seem to have some significant effects among young voters, Kwak said.

The long-term implications on young people as they grow further into adulthood was unclear in the study, he said.

Kwak, who was assisted in his research by U-M doctoral candidates Xiaoru Wang and Lauren Guggenheim, presented his findings at the recent meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in Toronto. The study was recognized among the top three faculty papers in the Communication Theory and Methodology Division.

Related links:

The U-M study (Requires Acrobat or other PDF reader.)

More information on Kwak

More information on AEJMC

 

Contact:   Jared Wadley
Phone: (734) 936-7819
E-mail: jwadley@umich.edu