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Laughter With a Side of Facts

Is the Next Jon Stewart at UMD?

By Liam Farrell

Laughter

John T. Consoli

John T. Consoli

For students behind the anchor desk in the basement of Tawes Hall this spring, the model for news in the 21st century is less the stern anchor behind the desk than the standup comic behind the microphone.

As journalism idols like Walter Cronkite give way to Samantha Bee, a new course is letting students inject some laughs into their news delivery by producing satirical pilots à la Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.”

The course, taught by Tom Bettag, a former executive producer for “ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel,” is part of an effort at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism to explore new avenues for practicing the craft.

“The evening news is such a tired form,” Bettag says. “[Students] have seen it since they were born, and it’s all so canned and so hyped, it turns them off.”

Combining jokes and current events is nothing new, of course, from early political cartoons to Weekend Update segments on 1970s-era “Saturday Night Live,” but television hosts like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert took the form to new heights.

A 2010 Rasmussen poll found that almost a third of millennials believed satirical news was replacing regular newscasts, and a 2012 Pew Research Center survey reported that Americans ages 18–29 were the largest component of “The Colbert Report” and “Daily Show” viewers, at 43 percent and 39 percent—a bigger share than for traditional sources like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and cnn.

Social media has also been a boon. Despite taking on weighty subjects like civil asset forfeiture and Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, Oliver’s Sunday night monologues bombard Monday morning Facebook and Twitter feeds (one report on Donald Trump has been viewed on YouTube more than 30 million times).

And Oliver, who sprinkles zingers into substantial reporting and research, is a good model for students to follow, says Leslie Walker, former vice president for news and editor of washingtonpost.com, who is assisting with the course.

“He has really shown the value of fact-based comedy,” she says. “What we can do is promote journalistic values in this genre of news.”

So on a February afternoon, about a dozen students took the first halting steps to turning tariffs and the endangered species list into laugh lines. It’s an early experiment that students like Summer Bedard ’17 hope will blossom into a sustainable outlet for creativity—and news reporting—at UMD. 

Bedard, who spends her free time with student comedy group the Bureau, relished the chance to bring together her comedic and reporting sides.

“Comedy is a really essential part in spreading information,” she says.

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