by Young Min Baek and Magdalena E. Wojcieszak

The debate on late night comedy has been inconclusive, with some scholars arguing
that this genre increases political knowledge, and others seeing late night comedy as
harmful to effective citizenry. We add to the debate and to the research on media effects
more generally, by proposing a model that measures political knowledge. The model
utilizes item response theory (IRT) to account for individual characteristics, knowledge
item difficulty, and response format that influences the likelihood of providing a correct
response. Drawing on the 2004 National Annenberg Election Study, we employ this model
to test knowledge gain from late night comedy. Using a meta-analysis across 35 political
knowledge items, we show that late night comedy increases knowledge, but primarily
on easy political items that have fewer correct response options, and mainly among the
inattentive citizens. We discuss theoretical implications and provide practical suggestions
for scholarship on media effects. (download)