In my last post, I mentioned some of the problems that public opinion as a political force can pose when citizens aren't sufficiently informed or just don't care about political issues. I mentioned Walter Lippmann's suggestion to relieve citizens of their participation in political decision making and leave it all up to experts. Another suggestion comes from political scientist John Zaller, who calls for a "burglar alarm journalism." The principle is related to Lippmann's: Zaller proposes to leave the evaluation of political issues to, of all things, the media.
"We live in a networked world. War is networked: the power of terrorists and the militaries that would defeat them depend on small, mobile groups of warriors connected to one another and to intelligence, communications, and support networks. Diplomacy is networked: managing international crises -- from SARS to climate change -- requires mobilizing international networks of public and private actors. Business is networked: every CEO advice manual published in the past decade has focused on the shift from the vertical world of hierarchy to the horizontal world of networks. Media are networked: online blogs and other forms of participatory media depend on contributions from readers to create a vast, networked conversation. Society is networked: the world of MySpace is creating a global world of "OurSpace," linking hundreds of millions of individuals across continents. Even religion is networked: as the pastor Rick Warren has argued, 'The only thing big enough to solve the problems of spiritual emptiness, selfish leadership, poverty, disease, and ignorance is the network of millions of churches all around the world'... In this world, the measure of power is connectedness."
Director of Policy Planning, United States Department of State
Dean, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, 2002-2009
Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University
We have just gotten through back-to-back blizzards worse than most seen in a century, evidenced in part by the stunned old-timers and record-setting snowfall levels. That said, what we have recently experienced here is a far cry from the devastation and suffering caused by natural disasters in other parts of the world, such as the recent typhoon in Southeast Asia and earthquake in Haiti. But that’s not the impression one would take away from the local and national news coverage of these snowstorms.
Rarely warranted hyperbole has become typical in coverage of natural disasters. Take, for example, what some print and broadcast news outlets named their snowstorm coverage: “Snowmageddon”, “Snowpocalypse”, and “Snowtorius B.I.G.” Jon Stewart, executive producer and host of Comedy Central’s fake news program The Daily Show, poked fun at these ridiculous appellations. And quite rightly, I think.
In my last post I wrote about the issue of public awareness, which Alasdair Roberts explains is one of the three main challenges facing India in its effort to implement the Right to Information Act (RTIA). Another challenge that Roberts names is bureaucratic indifference or hostility. If public awareness refers to citizen engagement and use of RTIA, bureaucratic hostility impacts enforcement of RTIA. Both have implications for the prospect of any legislation to actually come to life—by being used by people and enforced by public officials. Having examined the issue of public awareness, I now turn to public officials and the enforcement side.
“The man who lacks sense enough to despise public opinion expressed in gossip will never do anything great” - this is from Hegel's Philosophy of Right (1822). It's no secret that at CommGAP, we're all big advocates for public opinion, nevertheless we need to be aware of some of the problems that public opinion poses in its role as political factor.
Everyone can think of examples of public opinion seemingly landing somewhat off the mark in elections, referenda, polls, or other manifestations of the public's will. Elites then tend to shake their heads in exasperation about what they might call "public ignorance."
Requirements for a free and responsible press:
- The media should provide a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning.
- The media should serve as a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.
- The media should project a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society.
- The media should present and clarify the goals and values of the society.
- The media should provide full access to the day's intelligence.
There are places in the world that appear to be democratizing. Their governments claim to be working toward institutionalizing a free press. But authoritarian control can still be imposed behind the curtain of make-believe. Let me share a real-world example from a country that shall remain unnamed.
A colleague in international development, let’s call him Abdul Kanak, is originally from a self-professed newly-democratizing Asian country. We met up for coffee recently, and he told me about how things really work in his country’s media sector. Having worked as a journalist before moving to the United States, Abdul experienced firsthand how the government effectively controlled the mainstream news media and its coverage of political issues. Two forces worked in tandem to create the conditions for control. First, concentration of ownership among privately-owned news organizations. Second, the placement of cronies in positions of influence within the newsroom.
After introducing agenda setting and priming, I want to complete the "holy trinity of media effects" with a short introduction of framing, which I consider to be the most important effect of this threesome. Whereas agenda setting tells us what to think about (by putting issues on the public agenda), framing tells us how and why to think about an issue. To frame means to communicate in a way that leads audiences to see something in a certain light or from a particular perspective. Aspects that are not included in the frame do not come to the audience's attention. Framing determines where the audience puts its attention. Effective framing taps into preexisting beliefs, attitudes, and opinions; it highlights certain aspects of an issue over other aspects.
India’s 2005 Right to Information Act (RTIA) was described earlier on this blog by my colleague Darshana Patel, who saw first-hand some of the innovative efforts by district governments in the state of Maharashtra to implement the RTIA. She concludes her post with a caveat: legislation is important, but it is the actual use of it that leads to its effectiveness—and that use depends on public awareness.
This important point, among others, is discussed in detail by Alasdair Roberts of Suffolk University Law School in his informative paper, “A Great and Revolutionary Law? The First Four Years of India’s Right to Information Act.” The paper examines the progress to date in the implementation of the RTIA. Comprehensive and ambitious, the RTIA is hailed by enthusiasts as a legal measure with a “revolutionary” potential. However, the results of numerous studies including two recent large-scale assessments of the state of the RTIA reveal that the task of implementing the law is not without major challenges. According to Roberts, at the root of the difficulties are: “uneven public awareness, poor planning by public authorities, and bureaucratic indifference or hostility.” The first and third factors are the ones that I found more interesting for the purposes of this blog, and in this post I will focus on the issue of public awareness.