“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” ― Oscar Wilde
Satire can make journalism more entertaining and accessible for new audiences. It can be challenging to produce in an era of fake news and disinformation; it should enhance rather than distract from good journalism. But how can you turn your headline into a punchline?
Satirists and cartoonists are often among the first targets of authoritarian regimes and those who would silence freedom of expression. This is no accident: Laughter can reclaim power in the face of seeming hopelessness, and temper fear in the face of oppression. Well-wielded satire can communicate truths, challenge taboos, and entertain audiences in a more accessible and engaging way than conventional, straight-faced journalism.
The “Daily Show Effect” of current affairs satire is a well-studied phenomenon, at least in the US context: Such formats appeal to younger audiences, who are more likely to follow the news, seek further information, recall facts, and participate in political activities as a result of consuming political comedy. A 2017 study in the Journal of Communication found satire was very effective at engaging audiences who otherwise had little interest in politics, while giving them “feelings of political efficacy – belief that they can influence political processes.” As to the negative: Findings suggest satire may also harden audiences, raise the level of cynicism, and contribute to polarization of political outlook (a caveat is that the majority of such media research is carried out in the US, on US audiences, and in the US political context).
Satire is more than just jokes – it must be funny, but it must also make a point. It should show awareness of its subject, “punching up” rather than down. Amina Boubia from the Open Society Foundations’ Program on Independent Journalism spoke to two veterans of political satire: Isam Uraiqat and Juan Ravell. Isam is the founder of Al Hudood, a media organization specializing in satire, which is behind the eponymous Arabic-language site dubbed “the Onion of the Middle East.” Juan is CEO of the Venezuelan content agency Plop Media, which also runs the satirical Venezuelan outlet El Chigüire Bipolar.
Isam, why is satire important for audience engagement in the Middle East?
Isam Uraiqat: Satire is important because it can reach a much wider segment of the population and popularize issues society isn’t talking about. It’s even more important in the Middle East because of the massive restrictions on freedom of speech. It is one of the few formats that can override censorship as the authorities don’t always know how to deal with it.
How does Al Hudood work on a daily basis?
Uraiqat: We have editorial meetings every morning during which we discuss the main news of the day in the Middle East. We do a lot of media monitoring, we choose the most important stories, and we ask ourselves: “What do we want to say about this? What’s our take on this? Why does it matter? What’s the problem with this? Where’s the irony?” We first figure out the angle. Then we come up with phrasing for the jokes.
The jokes themselves are not the most difficult part. Once you train your mind to think in a certain way, it feels like accessing a set of complex templates in your brain. The most important aspect of our work is our editorial take on something, similar to the process of writing an opinion piece. We have developed methodologies to produce satirical news content on a daily basis for the website and for the new monthly print issue. We spent a year and half producing a detailed internal 30-page guide explaining the difference between good and bad satire, and how to produce it. We rely on this guide to orientate new members of the team.
What’s the recipe for good satire?
Uraiqat: Presenting a strong point in a funny way is the heart of satire. For us, the focus is on the headline. We sometimes have 30 iterations before we reach the headline we publish. It’s as much about the packaging as the story itself.
Doesn’t satire depend a lot on the writer’s personality and sense of humor?
Uraiqat: Personality sometimes hurts more than it helps, because it can get in the way of what is being said — some satirists rely on their charisma more than their actual words and content. Most people on our team are introverts; even if someone is not naturally funny they can learn to produce good satire. We also run workshops on how to produce satirical news based on our guide. We take participants through small exercises, then we let them see how we work, bringing them into our daily editorial meetings to discuss story ideas. This helps people understand the importance of conversation between journalists, which is essential for good content production. If there’s one thing we ban at Al Hudood it is saying: “This is not funny.” That doesn’t help.
How do you make sure you get the right message across and don’t confuse people?
Uraiqat: We need to be very careful as satire can sometimes make things worse and go viral for the wrong reasons. We have a flag system and 11 principles to help us operate (these include not “punching down,” being careful not to become too cynical, and “not stopping at 10 principles just because 10 is a complete and compelling number”).
We need to make sure our satirical stories are not misinterpreted as true because this would be fake news, which can happen if they lack enough irony. We also try to cover all sides of a story as much as possible. For instance, in relation to the Saudi-Iranian divide, if we have a story about the Saudis, we make sure we throw something in about Iran too. Whenever possible we do it in the same story, because stories have a life of their own. We even do this in the headline whenever we can, as this can reach six times more people than the story itself.
Plop Media collaborated with investigative journalism site IDL-Reporteros to produce entertaining explanatory videos on the Lava Jato (‘Car Wash’) scandal which gripped Latin America. These videos were shared on YouTube via the Ampli content lab. Juan, what’s your favorite segment?
Juan Ravell: We are particularly proud of the segment explaining how the “bribery department” worked. It’s a simple, funny, and to-the-point animation. We collaborated with a Mexican animation studio that regularly works for Cartoon Network, the BBC, and Discovery Kids; it was their first try at political satire, and they nailed it!
(Watch from 5’28)
What are the most important lessons you learned from this collaboration?
Ravell: The Lava Jato scandal is very complex and we had a lot of information. The first lesson we learned is that we needed to dedicate much more time to research on this project compared to our previous satirical work. Initially we wanted to have only animation sketches, but given the complexity, we decided to mix satire, skits, and interviews in a documentary-explainer style to paint a larger picture and make the story more accessible. We also found out that fact-checking needs to happen throughout the production work to make this series both appealing and truthful. This is why establishing a good relationship with your collaborating partner (in this case IDL-Reporteros) is key. It was a lot of work and we loved it, but I wouldn’t recommend starting with a project like this.
Do you work differently now on other projects?
Ravell: Not every story needs to be told this way, or using the same format and tone. Sometimes, shorter conceptual videos serve a story better. If you have a good host, do a good script, put a camera on him/her, and cut here and there, you can make an entertaining show. We’ve done this on other projects, and we are in touch with other independent investigative media outlets to collaborate and produce content they can put on their sites. The other option we are discussing is to do a two-minute snippet of a story while inviting the readers to read the whole piece on the site. If they don’t read it, at least they know what’s happening. We’re starting to become a sort of content agency for investigative journalism.
What was the main challenge you had to overcome?
Ravell: The Lava Jato scandal was a good regional story to tackle, but it also meant we started with the hardest. We were used to more flexibility with our own site, El Chigüire Bipolar. It is similar to what The Onion does: We talk about reality, but in a fun way. Nobody tells us what to do and we don’t have to negotiate. The main difficulty appeared when we wanted to say something in a funny way, but it didn’t sound like what had actually happened. So we had to work around it. We were saying what’s funny and entertaining, and they were telling us what was incorrect, as a joke might confuse people into thinking something wasn’t true. That was at the heart of this collaboration and a great learning experience. If we had done this on our own, we would probably have made many mistakes.
Would you recommend newsrooms use humor for good journalism and audience engagement?
Ravell: A lot of stories can reach further with a little bit of humor or satire. The Washington Post for instance has someone doing satire and managing their TikTok account. But some subjects are impossible to tackle with humor, or at least you have to go about it in a very delicate way. For example, we are working on a project covering the migrant crisis in Central America — we interviewed a specialized reporter, Bartolo Fuentes, who was in the migrants’ caravan, but we also had a Venezuelan comedian who walked with them from Cúcuta to Bogota with a camera. What’s interesting about his web show is that the humor comes from the people he is traveling with: We are not laughing at them, we are laughing with them. It’s very hard to achieve because you have to walk and live with people while having the imagination and sense of humor to befriend them and have fun while on camera.
This article was originally published in the Program on Independent Journalism newsletter of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) and is reproduced here with permission. Note: OSF is a major donor to GIJN.
Amina Boubia is a program specialist for the Program on Independent Journalism at the Open Society Foundations. She has previously worked as a columnist for Dîn wa Dunia. She graduated from Sciences Po with a PhD in political science, specializing in the Islamic world.