With Alessandro Olper*
Mass media plays a crucial role in distribution of information and in shaping public policy. Theory shows that information provided by mass media reflects its incentives to provide news to different groups in a society and in turn shape these groups’ influence on policy making.
With Alessandro Olper*
Recent events made me think about a particular chicken and egg problem: What comes first, political polarization or media polarization? And how much damage can media polarization do in a political system? The answer to the first question is probably: they’re mutually reinforcing, but the media wouldn’t be polarized if there wasn’t a polarized audience to begin with. The answer to the second question is less obvious, but relevant to all political systems where the media can tip the scales toward one side or the other, or possibly one extreme or the other.
It is a commonplace by now that the fragmented media landscape in many countries, much amplified by online media, allows members of the audience to get exposed only to political content that they actually agree with. There is so much out there, you never really need to listen to the other side. In the recent Presidential elections in the United States, this led to a curious phenomenon. The media on the right, and also voters on the right that mainly focused on those media, were convinced that their candidate would win and were genuinely surprised when he didn’t. The media on the left played the same trick on its audience. The media in the middle covered the election as if it was a close race, which it wasn’t, in order not to scare part of their audience away. Overall, one had to turn to foreign media to lose some of the bias.
Just in case you were tempted to think that the revolution in public scrutiny that more and more governments have to face these days can only be a good thing, Peter Aucoin pops up to say maybe this is problematic in ways we have not been focusing on. In an article in the April 2012 edition of Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions, titled ‘New Political Governance in Westminster Systems: Impartial Public Administration and Management Performance at Risk’ Aucoin examines the impact on the tradition of the impartial civil service in Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand, among others:
- Masses of media
- Transparency and openness
- Competition in the political marketplace
What is striking is that in all these developments that people like me celebrate he sees danger. You ask: what’s there not to like about these things? Plenty, he seems to reply.
Ideally, governments and other decision makers should consider public opinion and let it guide them in designing policies that benefit the general public. Problematically, sometimes the opinion of the public simply cannot be heard. Sometimes this happens when a very loud minority drowns out the voices of the silent majority. In such cases, the opinion climate in a society may seem to be more radical than it actually is.
Nixon famously used the term "silent majority" when he appealed for support to what he perceived as the majority of American voters who did not publicly oppose the Vietnam War. He saw this group outclamored by a small but noisy minority that did protest. This was actually a clever strategic argument on Nixon's part. Noelle Neumann's Spiral of Silence, which we have introduced here on this blog, posits that most people would follow the majority because they don't want to be isolated in society. If one opinion is heard more and more often, it may be perceived as majority opinion, even though it isn't. And then, if it's become almost ubiquitous, it might be perceived as majority opinion and people may change their own opinions to fit this "opinion climate." This way, over time and with a lot of help from the media, a minority opinion, for instance an extreme political opinion, may actually become the opinion of the majority.
Communication is something of an ugly duckling in the social sciences – not many people take it seriously and not many people see the immediate relevance of the research. However, the study of public opinion is a good example to outline the immediate relevance of the field – and its future relevance.
- Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
- Social Sciences
- Public Sphere
- Public Opinion Tribunal
- Public Opinion
- Political Science
- Political Philosophy
- mass media
- James Mill
- Information Processing
- Information Dissemination
- Fourth Estate
- Communication Studies
- Communication Science
- Communication Research
- Charles Cooley
We are unstoppable when it comes to communicating. “Communicate” means “to share” and it comes as second nature (it’s socially addictive in fact). The 300 million of us blogging can rarely be silenced. A comment on a Minister’s blog can provoke a policy change. A micro-blog can influence a legal challenge (the Trafigura/Carter Ruck affair) or inspire masses (the Iranian elections were the top news story on Twitter last year). And a social network group like Facebook can undermine an X-Factor winner’s success (a winner ironically chosen by “the people” by telephone vote). It is the public, not governments that are beginning to drive change. But whether we like it or not it’s still mainstream media that is being listened to most – TV, radio and most powerful of all – the old fashioned newspaper read out loud. It’s more coherent, more organised, and usually better written than the complex voice of the masses. Big media still counts.
In his latest post, Tony Lambino makes an interesting argument about pundits and social norms. He says that pundits' comments, for example on statements of public figures, are a manifestation of the social norms of a society. Punditry is a fascinating phenomenon and a recent development in the mass media - and might have changed the media landscape quite significantly.
Pundits discuss current affairs from their own point of view, often together with or in contrast to other pundits. Pundits can be experts, such as academics, but often journalists stylize themselves to be experts on political and other issues. It seems debatable to me whether punditry it is indeed part of the media's role in democracy.
Susan's blog on media literacy and the outcome of the Presidential Election in the U.S. reminded me of a discussion I recently had with several communication scholars, among them French sociologist Daniel Dayan. We were talking about the difference between "old" and "new" media, and their respective roles in society. The main point that refers to Susan's post and to development is: old media's function is mainly the dissemination of information. New media's function is entirely different! New media are a new form of audience, or rather, they are an extension of the audience. This extension enables the audience to participate. New media are therefore media of participation, going way beyond dissemination.