A little bit of comedy and satire can go a long way in making TV news more informative.
That is the conclusion of a University of Pennsylvania study which found Comedy Channel host Stephen Colbert did a better job of informing viewers than traditional news programs.
Lead researcher Bruce Hardy said the study found viewers of "The Colbert Report," which includes the host's satirical spin on the news, were better informed about US campaign finance and the role of money in politics than people who watched cable channels CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, or used other news sources including radio and newspapers.
"Colbert did better than any other news source at teaching," said Hardy, a researcher at the university's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
"There were two reasons. First was the narrative structure. He walked us through creating a super PAC (political action committee) and every episode was a continuation of that story. And second was the use of humor and satire."
Hardy added that "consistently, we found that Colbert did better than every other news source we included in our model."
The study published Monday in the scholarly journal Mass Communication and Society said watching Colbert served as "an extended civics lesson," and increased their knowledge of these matters more than reading a daily newspaper, listening to talk radio, or watching cable news.
The study followed Colbert's satirical look at the campaign financing after the US Supreme Court in 2010 lifted legal restrictions on campaign donations. During that time, Colbert set up his own "super PAC" called "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow," which was allowed to accept unlimited corporate donations and a separate shell corporation to which donations could be given anonymously.
By becoming an active participant, Colbert engaged the viewers more than traditional news reports, the researchers said.
They also concluded that viewers retained more information from Colbert than from the so-called "inverted pyramid" news formula in which the most important news comes first, describing that approach as getting "the punchline before the joke."
The study was based on phone survey data from 1,232 adults interviewed between December 13 and December 23, 2012.
In April, Colbert signed a deal to succeed TV icon David Letterman as host of the "Late Show" next year.
Colbert, 50, has presented the award-winning "The Colbert Report," a satirical, fake news show, since 2005.