The Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas’s writing on the public sphere brings up an issue we’ve discussed at length in the journalism school — promoting interactivity between the media and the audience. Within the print realm of journalism, new classes have been springing up to study more about community outreach and how to get users to contribute their own ideas to the news they want to know about. Granted, in the case of the Columbia Missourian we’re talking about a small town newspaper, but this issue about corralling a diversity of voices within the media translates to large publications of all platforms, too.

Even with these efforts, Habermas would say that the public sphere gives a false impression that people can discuss the issues they think affect them most because in the end, it’s all dictated by the ideology that drives these ideas and behaviors. I would say that even though, yes, it’s generally the powerful elite that gets to define what we value and how we act, smaller media outlets are better equipped to broadcast what the community finds important. On a broader scale, this isn’t the case, and there are still plenty of examples of local news that feeds the larger display of ideological regurgitation.

Take some of the more bizarre Sochi Olympic news coverage for example. Jimmy Kimmel, who already pulled one over on broadcasters and audiences alike with his fall 2013 twerking hoax, was at it again for a Winter Olympics edition.

Similar to the Conan O’Brien video we watched in class about Christmas shopping “trends” (shout out to our very own KRCG-13 for showing up on the list…), Jimmy collected a swarm of local news casts dropping the same puns and reporting on what they believed was Olympic athlete Kate Hansen’s video of a wolf roaming the accommodations of Olympic village. The way that the news was disseminated across the country despite not really being all that newsworthy is a sobering realization of how the news industry operates. What’s even worse is that this situation was a completely fabricated event. Joke’s on all of us.

So what hope is there left to the notion of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteil’s marketplace of ideas? Students are taught that journalism is first and foremost in place to serve the public good, and part of that is enacting the media as a platform for the public to hold those in power accountable for their actions. This might not translate as well to broadcast per the examples above, but newspapers are still often associated with publishing opinion pages. A study from Drexel University’s Department of Culture and Communication, led by Tyson Mitman, Alexander Nikolaev, Douglas Porpora, looks into this further. Their article “The Critical Moral Voice on American Newspaper Opinion Pages” details a study that looked at 25 different U.S. newspapers and news magazines in the weeks leading up to the 2003 U.S. attack on Iraq. The focus was to answer three questions about the publications’ opinion pages: who were the authors of the columns, which types of authors wrote in to which types of publications, and did the author type play a role in whether they contributed moral content to public debate?

Their findings revealed that of their selection, 76 percent of opinion pieces in the press came from the new organizations themselves either through editors letters or regular columnists. Women were particularly underrepresented with only 16 percent of those who wrote in about the war. But of that 16 percent, 85 percent of the women writing in were also regular columnists contributing to the debate for their jobs. Those who were part of the public and wrote in were primarily politicians and academics. The research showed that politicians generally contributed to right-wing papers, whereas academics contributed to the left-wing and took on more of a moral argument that the U.S. attack was preemptive and unjust. Among these types of contributors to the opinion pages about the matter, little room is left for the “everyman” who is neither a reporter, politician or academic. This example supports Habermas’s idea of the false representations the public sphere embodies about serving the interests of the public without interference from the dominant ideology.

 

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