Remixing journalism: the power of satire as an alternative fourth estate

Dr Allaina Kilby is a lecturer in Journalism in the Media and Communications department.  Her current research interests include comedy and activism, and the role of emotion and advocacy journalism in satirical news reporting.

Journalism has its work cut out as a capable fourth estate that holds truth to power. Over the past decade competition, limited financial resources, fragmented audiences and increased public distrust in journalism have made life increasingly difficult for the news media. Accordingly, this period has allowed new platforms to emerge, and most specifically, political TV satire. It is becoming a viable alternative to mainstream journalism.

Satire is described as humour with a social purpose, and a discourse of enquiry and challenge that seeks to ask unanswered questions from the powerful. These critical elements of satire draw many parallels with the working practices of fourth estate journalism, particularly news reporting scrutinising political and social issues. Yet, unlike the news media, TV satire communicates these issues through humour. Programmes like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal’s hybrid mix of news and comedy have created a new kind of public affairs media that has re-imagined the possibilities of what political journalism can offer.

This combination of factors and the absence of journalistic restrictions gives TV satire the freedom to produce news critiques that resonate with audiences who have grown tired of the packaged nature of mainstream news reporting. Its approach to reporting has made news more meaningful because it unpacks much of the spin and empty rhetoric espoused by the political and media classes.  Therefore, TV satire offers a unique and authentic experience to conventional news reporting because it uses humour and honest rhetoric.  It defies the conventions of traditional journalism by speaking in a language that the audience can identify with.

The authentic counter-narrative that TV satire offers, enables it to adopt the role of the ‘citizen surrogate’ whereby the satirist becomes the audience stand in, articulating their concerns within the public sphere.  Thus while the traditional news media is struggling to maintain audience trust, the TV satirist/audience bond has grown in strength because of the former’s ability to recognise the latter’s apathy and anger towards packaged news and questionable politics. This was Jon Stewart’s role as host of The Daily Show as he used his satirical platform to criticise news organizations like CNN for performing news theatrics rather than properly informing the public.  His critique certainly resonated with citizens as Stewart was voted the ‘most trusted news man in America’ by a Time Magazine poll in 2009, despite the fact he was a comedian and not a trained journalist.  Despite Stewart’s departure from the show, his work has left a legacy of engaging political critique that continues to be adopted by the new host Trevor Noah and other late-night satire shows.

Another reason why TV satire is overtaking traditional news in terms of audience reach is again a result of its absence of journalistic restrictions.  The result is that it can often provide contextual information and alternative perspectives to events found in mainstream news reporting. In addition, these programmes are able to focus on political and social issues that are not publicised by the mainstream media.  Take for example, Stephen Colbert’s Super-Pac campaign that exposed the legal loopholes of America’s campaign finance system and was later picked up by The New York Times.  Or, more recently, Full Frontal’s investigative piece Russian ‘thinkfluencers’ paid by the Kremlin to post pro-Trump messages on US media websites.  In October 2016, the story was not mentioned by western journalists, yet it later became part of a wider investigation into Russia’s interference in the US election. What these examples show is that TV satire can provide meaningful assessments of events that fall outside of the mainstream news’ remit.

TV satire is of course, not without its faults, and research shows that that it promotes a left-leaning partisan logic and can encourage political cynicism and alienate citizens from the political process. However, it might become increasingly important. Journalism often struggles for oxygen as politicians use social media to promote their messages directly, while the industry itself struggles to gather some critical mass amid concerns about the funding of online news and the reduction in jobs in investigative journalism. This deficit in critique can be in part filled by late night TV satire. So, a laughing matter can also be no laughing matter