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The public sphere is a social entity with an important function and powerful effects in modern, democratic societies. The idea of the public sphere rests on the conviction that people living in a society, regardless of their age, gender, religion, economic or social status, professional position, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, or nationality, should be able to publicly express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions about issues that matter to them and impact their lives. This expression should be as free as possible in form and function and should operate through means and methods that people themselves deem suitable, so not via channels that are official or state-sanctioned. The classic Habermasian idea of the public sphere is that it is used by private individuals (not officials or politicians) who should be able to converse with each other in a public-spirited way to develop opinions that impact state or public-body decisions and policies. Also contained within this classic idea is the conviction that public sphere conversations should be rational (i.e., logical, evidence-based, and properly motivated and argued using an acceptable set of rhetorical devices) in order to convince others of the usefulness of a position, statement, or opinion. In commonsensical, political, and journalistic understandings, the public sphere is a critical component of a democracy that enables ordinary citizens to act as interlocutors to those who hold power and thereby hold them to account. As such it is one of the elements whereby democracy as a system is able to claim legitimacy as the “rule of the people.” Journalism’s imbrication in the social imaginary of the public sphere dates back to 17th- and 18th-century Europe when venues like coffee houses, clubs, and private homes, and media like newspapers and newsletters were being used by a mixture of gentry, nobility, and an emerging middle class of traders and merchants and other educated thinkers to disseminate information and express ideas. The conviction that journalism was the key vehicle for the conveyance of information and ideas of public import was then imbedded in the foundations of the practice of modern journalism and in the form exported from Western Europe to the rest of the world. Journalism’s role as a key institution within and vehicle of the public sphere was thus born. Allied to this was the conviction that journalism, via this public sphere role and working on behalf of the public interest (roughly understood as the consensus of opinions formed in the public sphere), should hold political, social, and economic powers to account. Journalists are therefore understood to be crucial proxies for the millions of people in a democracy who cannot easily wield on their own the collective voices that journalism with its institutional bases can produce.

Article

Chris Peters

For millennia, the idea that rituals create a shared and conventional world of human sociality has been commonplace. From common rites of passage that exist around the world in various forms (weddings, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies) to patterned actions that seem familiar only to members of the in-group (secret initiations, organizational routines), the voluntary performance of ritual encourages people to participate and engage meaningfully in different spheres of society. While attention to the concept was originally the purview of anthropology, sociology, and history, many other academic disciplines have since turned to ritual as a “window” on the cultural dynamics by which people make and remake their worlds. In terms of journalism studies in particular, the concept of ritual has been harnessed by scholars looking to understand the symbolic power of media to direct public attention, define issues and groups, and cause social cohesion or dissolution. Media rituals performed in and through news coverage indicate social norms, common and conflicting values, and different ways of being “in the world.” The idea of ritual in journalism is accordingly related to discussions around the societal power of journalism as an institution, the ceremonial aspects of news coverage (especially around elite persons and extraordinary “media events”), and the different techniques journalists use to “make the news” and “construct reality.” Journalism does more than merely cover events or chronicle history—it provides a mediated space for audiences and publics that both allows and extends rituals that can unite, challenge, and affect society.