He sat at that desk, and told us of what happened in the world that day. Not only did he make us laugh, but for some of the population, he informed.
When 11:30 Eastern time struck, as most people turned off or switched to Letterman, Kimmel or Fallon, he had done more than just talk about the news of the day. He influenced and engaged with the modern political and media culture of the United States, and left an important lesson for those who cover the news.
He is Jon Stewart, and tonight he will sit at that desk at The Daily Show for the last time after 16 years. Since taking over from Craig Kilborn in 1999, Stewart added his own personal spin on the program, that as the digital and social media age evolved, took off, influencing 21st century journalism, and also showing where it can improve.
Data from the Pew Research Center showed that 12 percent of Americans got their news from The Daily Show, similar to that of USA Today and The Huffington Post. Many of them were young people. Yet, in a 2010 study from Pew, 10 percent of Americans turned to the Daily Show for headlines, compared to 24 percent for views and 43 percent for entertainment.
But what Stewart was able to do was more than entertainment – he was able to shape journalism and educate about its future, as the 24 hour news cycle evolved and adapted from cable news, to the web and social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. If the media was evolving, Jon Stewart would evolve with it.
The debate that Stewart contributed to focused on the standards to which reporting is conducted. As Thomas Kent, the standards editor at the Associated Press noted in an op-ed for The New York Times, that left many with questions.
“Mainstream American journalists have long valued keeping their own opinions out of their reporting, following the facts and letting them speak for themselves. Balance is valued, as is nuance,” Kent wrote. “But critics have called this school of impartial reporting outmoded. They believe journalists should declare their beliefs and then report the truth as they see it.”
Kent notes that while Stewart taught journalists how to appeal to new audiences, the principle of objectivity reigned.
“There is still enduring value to balanced, sober reporting of all sides of a story,” Kent said. “Mainstream journalism embraces a sense of professional humility; not everything has a simple, snappy answer. News commentary, especially acid commentary, is on the rise. It’s tough and straightforward and pulls important new audiences into public discussion. Jon Stewart was its master. But alongside commentary, citizens — and comedians — need the fundamentals: solid sources of fast, aggressive and balanced reporting.”
Jon Stewart allowed us to see ourselves as journalists in a different light, to remind us of what is important in journalism, and how to make subjects interesting to new audiences. The news cycle will continue to evolve as new technology develops, but the lesson that Stewart leaves is that people, especially young people, care about the news. They care about the truth. How it is delivered will change their engagement and attitude. As its said in the SPJ’s Ethics code, “seek truth and report it.”
While commentary aides discussion, reporting provides its roots, and only objective, impartial reporting can do that. Education is at the heart of all good journalism, and if Jon Stewart taught us anything, its that, and it is a principle we must abide by, not just for ourselves, but for our audience, no matter what platform we write or broadcast on.
We don’t enter this profession for the money. We enter this profession because we care about the people. We want to help them live better lives, and it all starts with education, something no one can place a price tag on.
Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of SPJ Digital, is a contributing blogger to Net Worked and SPJ’s community coordinator. He is also Co-Student Life editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.
The views expressed in this blog post are that of the author’s unless otherwise indicated, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Digital executive, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.