Is there a place in journalism for satire? If so, what writing techniques does it favour?

Satirical journalism has become increasingly prevalent of late, and a considerable amount of scholarly debate currently exists on the subject. This has brought into question the nature and purpose of journalism. The news can be a serious enterprise. Satire is often comical and, therefore, it might not be immediately obvious why it is appropriate for journalism. However, a great of satire is intended to convey a serious point, and this is so with much of the contemporary satirical journalism. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has become particularly well-known as a popular news show, and it has started to blur the distinction between journalism and entertainment. Overall, it seems that satire does have a place in journalism as it allows the opinion of the masses to be brought into attention for a wider audience, sometimes making journalism more honest. Satirical writing techniques often use sarcasm and cynicism to get their point across, and many profit from using the philosophical technique of reduction ad absurdum to make their viewpoint seem sensible and the target viewpoint seem absurd.

In recent years, satirical journalism has become both more prevalent and more popular. In both the UK and the US, television shows which take an irreverent look at the news are receiving an increasing amount of network coverage (Baym 2005. pp.260). This demonstrates that there is a demand for this form of satirical journalism, for one reason or another. A well-known example is the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which is very popular in the United States of America. There may be a demand for such shows simply for the sake of entertainment and comedy, but there is also the possibility that some of the public are starting to look to such avenues for their frequent dose of global politics and news. This has led to much scholarly debate on the development of the journalism industry and its possible fusion into the entertainment industry. The younger generations are increasingly used to being entertained, and it seems possible that journalism which is made as entertaining as possible may attract a larger audience now than the traditional news (Roberts 2008, pp.15). This brings into question not only the purpose of journalism, but also the purpose of satire and the question of whether or not the latter has a place in the former. This discussion is concerned with exactly this question.
On Journalism
What is journalismWhat is its purposeThrough an investigation of this question, it is possible to understand what journalism is not. In this way, in conjunction with an investigation into the nature of satire, one might be able to go some way to discerning whether or not there is a place in journalism for satire. Journalism is the activity of providing news through a given medium; this medium could be a newspaper, a magazine, the television or others. Of course, the news sometimes tends to be a very serious enterprise. News is something which is intended for a large audience and usually is synonymous with an exposition of important happenings from around the world, which may have an effect on the lives of those watching or listening to it. As such, it is natural to take the position that the news is serious and should be perceived as such. Some may feel that satirising the news undermines its serious nature and is, therefore, generally undesirable. Indeed, this claim certainly has some merit when one takes into account how serious some news is. However, not all news is serious; take, for instance, many of the newspaper articles printed in The Sun newspaper in the UK. Additionally, there is evidence that a great deal of the potential audience for news shows are starting to look to shows such as the Daily Show with Jon Stewart rather than the traditional news shows (Baym, 2005). Roberts (2008) notes that for 30 years, ratings for traditional news shows have been on a downward slide. If this trend demonstrates a growing desire for satirical news, it is important to understand why and to understand the differences between satirical and traditional news.
Is Satire Just Comedy?
Firstly, it is important to distinguish between various forms of satire which include journalism in their content, as some of these are more serious in their nature than others. For example, a section of Chris Morris’ show BrassEye was called The Day Today. This was presented in a traditional news format and used many of the presentation techniques of the traditional news. However, none of its content was related to real events and, therefore, it is not the kind of journalistic satire which this discussion is concerned with. It was a parody of the news for entertainment purposes only. Generally speaking, satire has a serious element to it and is created with the intention of conveying a particular idea or way of thinking. Therefore, this discussion is concerned with journalistic satire which does not appear to be created purely for the sake of entertainment.
As we have seen, journalism is a serious enterprise and should not necessarily be associated with comedy. However, satire is not simply comedy and it can certainly be intended seriously. Swift’s (1865) Gulliver’s travels is a famous piece of satire which was intended partly to convey some very serious points. For example, at one point in the book Gulliver is bragging to a character in the book (the King of Brobdingnag) about how advanced the English are in terms of warfare. The King to whom he speaks is a satirical device used by Swift to convey his opinion that being advanced in the art of war is not something to be proud of. This is an extremely serious point. Similarly, George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a satirical work which focuses on the corruptible effects of power. These examples and a plethora of others demonstrate that satire can be not only serious but also powerfully so. These examples are still extremely well-known and they have become, to a certain extent, ‘cult’ works which express various perennial truths. Sometimes, satire is necessary and an extremely effective way to create a new viewpoint regarding a certain matter.
Satire in Journalism
This is so with journalism. Charlie Brooker’s (2009) Newswipe is a television show which provides an irreverent and subversive look at the English news and it has been very popular. Brooker’s trademark cynicism provides an alternative viewpoint to the traditional news, and one which is clearly popular with the general public. Similarly, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart in the US has provoked a great deal of scholarly debate about the nature of journalism and the place satire should have within it. Roberts states that “the Daily Show actually offers a significant amount of substantive content amid its satire” (2008, pp.43); additionally, Hmielowski et al. (2011) highlight the political relevance of satirical shows such as The Daily Show. Jon Stewart was even voted no.4 by the American public in their vote on the ‘journalist’ they most admired (Kakutani, 2008). An article in the New York Times online has as its headline ‘Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?’ (Kakutani, 2008). These examples demonstrate that the American public do, indeed, take this man seriously. So what is so attractive about Stewart and Brooker’s brand of satirical journalism?
Popkin (2012) opines that the Daily Show provides an honest viewpoint and reflects the views of the average citizen. He states that “An informed citizenry is necessary to holding its leaders accountable, and the show helps to inform by, in part, pointing out the contradictions that are made by prominent political figures.” Indeed, there is a common stereotype that politicians often seek to ‘bend the truth’ and their efforts at obfuscation are usually difficult to miss. To compound the problem, the traditional news has often in the past been used as a force for propaganda. It seems evident in many cases that news stations have a certain angle on their stories and they do not always report every side of an issue. This has important implications for the use of satire in journalism. People often discuss what they really think of the news with friends or colleagues and there is a general opinion that one has to decipher certain statements of politicians and opinions of newsreaders to reach the truth of a matter. Satirical journalism, it can be argued, merely brings this honest opinion of the masses to the big screen. This is what shows like The Daily Show and Newswipe set out to achieve; they bring a cynical, critical viewpoint on the news to the public, for the public.
However, it seems clear that this is no substitute for the traditional news. This statement is supported by the fact that many of the most important news events are not mentioned in the Daily Show (Pew Research Center 2008). Yet it does seem that these satirical pieces of journalism do, indeed, have their place. People might say that satire has no place in journalism because it is comedic, but satire can be an extremely effective method of getting a serious point across in a light-hearted manner. It seems, also, that shows like Newswipe encourage the general public to be discerning and critical when it comes to the news, which seems important and beneficial generally.
On Satirical Writing
So what are some of the best techniques for writing satireThe answer to this can be elucidated by referring to some of the satirical works mentioned previously. For example, Jonathan Swift created a master class in satire with Gulliver’s Travels. By creating a character (Gulliver) who represents the opinion of everyman, it is possible to compare this general opinion to various other viewpoints which the author can create. In this way, any misguided views on the part of the general public can be clearly illuminated and seen for what they are. Similarly, Orwell’s ‘1984‘ is an extremely well-known book which has taken its place in English literary history amongst some of the greatest works ever produced. Orwell created a dystopian world which arguably conveyed his opinion of how the world might become in the future, given the circumstances prevailing in his time. This device is especially effective as it causes dismay on the part of the reader and causes one to be reflective about the current state of affairs. Indeed, this is particularly significant now as 1984 seems to be becoming increasingly relevant with each passing day. The power satire has to extricate one’s point of view from cultural or temporal conditioning is indisputable.
‘1984’ is an example of a very effective satirical writing technique which makes use of a ‘reductio ad absurdum’. This is where the writer creates a situation whereby a current practice or state of affairs is taken to its logical extreme in order to make it appear absurd. A telling example comes, again, from Jonathan Swift. As Cutbirth eloquently explains, “when Jonathan Swift suggested: “A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled…” he was not advocating cannibalism or infanticide. He was taking aim at callous bureaucratic British authority and the toll it had taken on the Irish people and their country’s economy. (2011, pp.98) Although this extract is clearly humorous, it was meant to make a serious point and it did so extremely effectively. It is pertinent here to make reference to Charlie Brooker’s writing style in Newswipe. His satirical style is particularly engaging and powerful. Using cynicism, sarcasm and humour, he retells a news story from his own viewpoint. In this way, he draws attention to the viewpoint of the news show and causes the viewer to find this opinion absurd. His sarcasm also alerts viewers to his opinion that many of the stories being read on the news should not be given the airtime that they have. Swift’s example is also a classic example of sarcasm being used to great satirical effect. Sarcasm and cynicism are, therefore, possibly the most powerful satirical writing techniques.
To conclude, it appears that there is, indeed, a place for satire in journalism. Granted, this place is not a replacement for traditional journalism. Much of the news is extremely serious and needs to be treated as such; for this purpose, satire may not be as appropriate as the traditional news. However, satire certainly has its uses. Brooker’s satire encourages the viewer to see the news in a critical light, as does the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The Daily Show also, like Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman (which is not an example of satire), gives the viewer a voice and attempts to find the truth behind the ‘official’ line given by the news networks. This honesty is extremely valuable for the general public when it comes to journalism. Some of the writing devices favoured by satire include sarcasm and cynicism; these two are frequently used techniques by satirical writers and they are very effective. It is also very effective to take an ordinary situation which is occurring and transpose it into a different situation, either by using a reduction ad absurdum or by introducing a separate viewpoint to represent the critical view on the situation.
Baym, G. (2005). The Daily Show. Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism. Political Communication, 22:259-276. Routledge
Cutbirth, J. (2011). Satire as Journalism: The Daily Show and American Politics at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. Columbia University: USA
Hmielowski, J. Lance Holbert, R. & Lee, J. (2011). Predicting the Consumption of Political TV Satire: Af?nity for Political Humor, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. Communication Monographs, Vol. 78, No. 1, pp. 96-114
Kakutani, M. (2008). Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in AmericaThe New York Times: New York
Orwell, G. (2003). Animal Farm. Penguin: UK
Pew Research Center (2008). Journalism, Satire or Just LaughsThe Daily Show with Jon Stewart – Examined.
Popkin, M. (2012). The Role and Impact of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Taking Satire Seriously On A “Daily Show” Basis. Student Pulse: Vol 4, No.9
Roberts, K. (2008). “The Daily Show” Vs. Network News: Where’s the SubstanceProQuest LLC
Swift, J. (1865). Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Regions of the World. Cassell, Peter & Galpin: London, UK

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