Sociolinguist says political humor ‘problematic for journalism’

February 15, 2011

Otto Santa Ana (left) and Alex S. Jones, Shorenstein Center director.

Otto Santa Ana (left) and Alex S. Jones, Shorenstein Center director.

February 15, 2011Otto Santa Ana, an associate professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA, spoke to the Shorenstein Center about the “covert power of political humor and mock journalism.” In particular, he examined the roles of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jay Leno in political comedic discourse.

A sociolinguist and critical discourse analyst, Santa Ana observed that laughter is a “human practice that brings us closer together.” However, political humor aimed at a large audience is more complex: “In the guise of lighthearted entertainment, mass media comedy actually configures — formally, conceptually — discriminatory hierarchies, and worse still, it facilitates the spread of ignorance,” he said.

Santa Ana described several kinds of jokes: “Anti-hegemonic jokes,” he said, “target the rich and powerful,” like President Obama, “institutions like the federal government and Wal-Mart, and celebrities” like Charlie Sheen. These jokes bring high-level people “down a notch, and it makes the rest of us feel a little bit better,” he explained and added, “They don’t contest the status quo — they pique it.”

On the other hand, hegemonic jokes, Santa Ana said, also “reinforce the status quo, whether justified or not,” but unlike anti-hegemonic jokes that make a powerful figure the butt of the joke, hegemonic jokes target those in a lower socio-economic status. “Laughing together forms social groups and confirms hegemonic relations,” Santa Ana explained, and so the result is that “a political joke can be more powerful than a simple assertion, an editorial or a pundit’s spin.”

The irony and parody in today’s political entertainment, Santa Ana said, “requires a two-stage interpretive process,” which is “more cognitive work” for the audience. Research has shown that viewers don’t always understand the satirical aspects of political comedies. For example, a study of those who viewed The Colbert Report showed a disparity between liberals who understood the show was a parody and conservatives who believed Colbert to be sincere. The studies showed, Santa Ana explained, that Colbert’s show “reinforced stereotypes” among viewers with “reduced critical discernment.”

Studies have concluded that “political entertainment is problematic for journalism and for American democracy,” Santa Ana said, because news genres “call for greater cognitive mediation, or thinking” on the part of the audience.

This article was written by Janell Sims and the photos taken by Heather McKinnon, both of the Shorenstein Center.