Digital Publishing
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Why satirical news sites matter for society

There always were and always will be those people who dare to mock the conventions of their time and use the weapon of wit to address important social issues and even reveal the incompetence of our political leaders.

Thank God for that.

Satire has been with us for ages: from Ancient Greece, and witty geniuses such as Aristophanes, all the way to the 21st-century satirists who have further explored the power of clever ridicule and dressed it up in many different forms.

Satire matters for more than one reason, but its main goal is to raise people’s awareness about the current state of affairs and to challenge their viewpoints by using humor and irony. It helps us confront the unpleasant reality and see the world as it is, so that we can improve it.

Paradoxically, satire often masks in order to unmask. It exaggerates in order to point to the real size of the problems that need to be dealt with. It amuses us, but it also educates us.

But what happens when satire penetrates the newsworld and becomes an independent format in journalism? Are its effects in these surroundings any different in comparison to other mediums?

Satirical journalism – not just for laughs

Satire in journalism existed way before the digital era. Mark Twain is certainly among the pioneers of satirical journalism as we know it, along with Artemus Ward and Will Rogers – but there are and have been many others.

If you flip through the history books, you’ll stumble upon one of the best-remembered journalists and humorists of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Finley Peter Dunne.

Dunne worked for the Chicago Evening Post and was the creator of the famous Mr. Dooley, a fictional character known for his satirical sayings and reflections, who existed within the newspaper column. Mr. Dooley was an Irish immigrant and a man of the people who had the wit to tell it like it was and the guts to criticize Chicago’s corrupt systems of government.

One particular thought from Mr. Dooley became something many would [still] feel accurately describes the role and responsibility of journalists:

The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. 

What satire in the news does is take this important task and it play with it by adding the element of humor. This does not in any way diminish the weight of the criticism directed towards individuals, organizations, political figures, or the entire society.

Actually, it’s quite the opposite: the fact that satire is funny makes us incredibly receptive to it. Laughter caused by satire sweetens those bitter pills we need to swallow, but it’s sneaky as it leaves a bad aftertaste – just as it should. It’s a great teacher in that sense.

As an unstoppable force that merged humor with political commentary, satire in the news transformed through time and conquered various formats. The first satirical news sites appeared in the 1990s, so they’ve been around as long as news websites in general. Many believe that today – they matter more than ever before.

The true effects of political satire and satirical news sites

Canadian newspaper and TV critic John Doyle has said that there are “specific times when satire is necessary” and how “we’ve entered those times”:

The importance of satire occurs at key points in history, usually when the mass of common people gets fed up with the nonsense being fed to them by politicians, political pundits, inane celebrities and the very rich.

Many share Doyle’s opinion as it makes perfect sense: when public morale is in crisis and outrageous affairs occur, satire is there to proffer an alternative response, to ensure a reaction and to discipline (or at least awaken) the masses, in a way.

However, if you think satire in the news is just mere entertainment, you might want to reassess your beliefs. Study conducted by The Ohio State University has shown that satirical news has real effects on people who consume them, just like regular, fact-based news.

The research examined satire in programs such as The Daily Show and tried to measure its impact on the study participants. It turns out that satire has the power to reinforce our existing political viewpoints and even influence the way we feel about the possibility of personally impacting political processes.

The author of the study, Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, concluded that “satirical news matters” and that it is “not just entertaining – it has a real-life impact on viewers”. Others take things even further, believing that satirical news plays a key role in shaping the next generation of American citizens. Such is the viewpoint of Penn State researcher Sophia McClennen, who believes that young people in particular turn to The Daily Show or Colbert Report and treat them as credible news sources that offer critical reflection in addition to the facts – which makes them engaging and ultimately empowers them to think on their own.

So, where do satirical news sites such as The Onion, Clickhole, Private Eye, NewsBiscuit, and others – fit into the picture?

Satirical news sites vs. fake news sites

Firstly, it’s good to get one thing in the clear. Not all people appreciate intelligent satire and it’s not that hard to see where they’re coming from. With all the noise and confusion caused by fake news every day, it’s legit to think we need more credible news sources opposed to additional misinformation – regardless of the higher goal that follows the production of satire.

Despite people being puzzled about what’s what, it’s wrong to put an equal sign between satirical news sites and fake news sites. Many still do, because the line between satire and deliberate misinformation tends to get a bit blurry.

The difference between satire and fake news has even inspired a real group of researchers at the University of Maryland to take a closer look. They used a dataset of fake news stories and satirical news that are hand coded and verified, and then conducted content analysis in order to identify major themes and determine the main differences between the two. The research defines fake news in the following way:

Fake news is information, presented as a news story that is factually incorrect and designed to deceive the consumer into believing it is true.

Both fake news and satirical news are untrue, but the key difference lies in the intention. Fake news is created with the deliberate intention to mislead and are by nature maliciously deceptive. While satire relies on factually incorrect stories, it intends to ridicule and expose behavior that is shameful. Some perceive satire as a form of “oppositional news” as it provides an alternative to party-affiliated stations, says media scientist, Benedict Porzelt.

Given the fact some media outlets are prone to bending the truth a bit (or even distorting the facts completely), satirical news sites motivate us to critically assess the information that’s been imposed on us, and they do so with comic relief.

Still, producing satirical news has to happen within a certain recognizable framework: it has to follow a particular protocol in order to avoid causing additional confusion. For instance, it shouldn’t include real facts and present them in a different context, since satirical value may get lost along the way and people will actually believe it’s true. This is exactly what happened to one satirical website that issued an official apology in 2017 for letting facts “find their way into the narrative”.

But not all audiences can tell the difference between satire and fake news. What’s even worse, they perceive satire as facts, especially across social media. Needless to say, it’s a major problem.

This joke isn’t funny anymore

When it comes to satirical news sites and other satirical formats in mainstream journalism, there are a couple of serious problems we must not overlook:

  • We live in bizarre times
  • Many people lack critical thinking skills and have poor media literacy
  • Obviously, humanity is very polarized and some people’s ‘moral rights’ might be others’ ‘moral wrongs’
  • Not everyone will get the joke and its underlying meaning: satire is often too sophisticated to be interpreted the right way

When public figures ridicule themselves, there’s little you can do to outperform them. Satire gets seriously challenged if everything’s already a joke. Just think about the times when you were reading a legit piece of news and kept checking the domain you were reading from because the story was just too bizarre.

Poor media literacy is another issue. We are losing the ability to tell truth from fiction, we are prone to confirmation bias, and sometimes we’re just too lazy to check the facts. We recklessly share the news online and participate in spreading misinformation, relying on our completely subjective “seems legit” assessment of the source. We know about that one. The Serbian Shark story at Njuz.net was something our CEO watched unfold with bemusement…

But not all satire has such an amusing ending. Often those aforementioned lines between what’s acceptably funny, and that’s just bad taste can have dreadful consequences.

Probably the most tragic outcome of satire in recent history is the terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo magazine. Will Self wrote an opinion post on BBC in the aftermath of the unfortunate event, questioning whether a satire can be justified in the world which does not have a consensus on morality. Moreover, satire exists in a very polarized world where different cultures and social groups have their own ideas of what’s offensive and where the boundaries of the freedom of speech lie. If satire fails to open up a constructive dialogue, it’s debatable if it’s to be called successful.

Lastly, not all audiences will get the joke. Its meaning might slip through their fingers. As a matter of fact, Jonathan Swift, one of the greatest satirists in history, compared satire to a mirror in which “beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own”, which is as ironic as it is true. In 1882, Mark Twain wrote an essay regarding the publication of his first satirical article “The petrified man” which for him was a “disheartening failure” given the fact nobody really understood it was satire – despite it being absolutely absurd. Twain admitted he “really had no desire to deceive anybody, and no expectation of doing it.”

Fast forward to the 21st century and people still don’t seem to get it. If you’re in the mood for laughs, you can check the website called Literally Unbelievable that collects reactions from users across social media who don’t seem to be familiar with the concept of satirical news.

The bottom line is satire in the news does matter, and it can influence public opinion for better and worse. It has the power to challenge the status quo and it plays an important role in society. When we snoop around satirical news sites, we might think it’s funny because it’s true, on a deeper level.

But there is more complexity to laughter than we may think. It is a natural defense mechanism we all share when it comes to trying to comprehend the absurdity we encounter every day, but it also opens up the doors to our consciousness and can serve as great teacher. Satire supports the process and it stirs things up when it’s necessary for its own, witty way.

by Mia Čomić

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.

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