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Late Night Comedy Not Joking About News

Hannah Zeller says she turns to late-night programs to stay informed but also to find humor and solace.

The news can be tough to absorb after awhile, even for a self-described “news junkie.”

“News and current events are definitely something my life has always been centered around,” says Hannah Zeller, 21, who says while in grade school, she knew the names of the news anchors on her local evening news hour.

But even for someone like Zeller, “there is such a thing as too much news,” she says.

So, she turns to late-night programs to stay informed but also to find humor and solace.

“The constant deluge of information can very rapidly shift you from the realm of ‘informed, proactive citizen’ to ‘on-fire garbage can crammed with so much content it ceases to do anything other than feed your anxiety,’” she says. “And once you get to that point, I think it can be really hard to do anything productive with the information you’re consuming.”

Ben Gainsboro, 22, agrees. He and Zeller are not alone in feeling overwhelmed at times.

A 2017 study from the American Psychological Association states that respondents “indicated that they feel conflicted between their desire to stay informed about the news and their view of the media as a source of stress.”

APA’s study indicated that while 95% of those surveyed said “they follow the news regularly,” 56% of the same group said that “doing so causes them stress.”

Although watching television programs such as the “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah" may cover similar topics to traditional news outlets, they “certainly make the news of the day seem a little less intimidating,” Zeller says.

A study by the Pew Research Center stated that “61 percent of young people reported regularly or sometimes learning campaign information from comedy television,” according to the book “Laughing Matters: Humor and American Politics in the Media Age,” edited by Jody C. Baumgartner.

This is likely because hosts of late-night comedy shows make their news material more “digestible,” Zeller says. Nevertheless, she recognizes that what she is viewing is not without bias.

“I think people often watch late-night shows and forget that what they’re seeing isn’t fact free from significant bias,” she says. “Not only are stories skewed for entertainment’s sake, but they’re also targeted towards certain audiences with certain beliefs or opinions, and I think this can sometimes negatively impact a person’s understanding of the facts of a news story.”

Gainsboro, a Massachusetts native, says though he watches “usually around an hour a day” of late-night television, he also recognizes that “comedy news” has risks.

“Comedy news is a dangerous game,” he says, “as people will seemingly believe anything nowadays. Same thing could be said for exaggerated news. I think we need to be better at sorting out the difference, as a society. They are too blurred.”

Yet simultaneously, hosts like Fallon, Colbert and Noah can help younger people feel like the world is a little less grim.

“Watching the news can sometimes make me feel so helpless, like the world is falling apart and there’s little I can do to address it but watch it burn around me,” Zeller says.

“Hearing those same events be made into a punchline for the monologue on ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ makes them seem less dire, and also like I’m not alone in tackling those events.

“The comedy of late-night TV makes the news consumable and like there’s a community of people out there who are dealing with it right alongside me,” she says.