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.
The spiral of silence theory provides insight into the ways in which perceptions of public opinion can lead to changes in opinion expression behavior. Conceptualized in a political communication context, the central claim of the theory is that individuals’ fear of social isolation motivates them to continuously evaluate the climate of opinion through both experiences with the media and interpersonal communication. Upon assessment, individuals either find themselves in a situation where their opinion aligns with the majority or minority. Accordingly, those who find their opinion does not align with the dominant opinion are likely to conceal their opinions while those who find their opinion aligns with the majority are more likely to express them. Empirical research testing the spiral of silence theory has predominately focused on measurement of focal variables and methods of empirical testing. Advances have been made in regard to micro-level factors, such as creating universally applicable measures of psychological attributes. However, limited work has explored macro-level factors, such as appropriateness of issues, application to computer-mediated communication environments, and tools used to identify circumstances vulnerable to spiral of silence effects. Nonetheless, the practical value of the spiral of silence theory for health and risk communicators can be utilized by modifying campaign efforts to anticipate and counteract fluxes in public opinion.
Damien Smith Pfister
Public spheres are sites of communicative interaction that feature citizens turning their attention to collective problems and democratically legitimate solutions. Closely associated with German critical theorist Jürgen Habermas, the idea of public spheres constituted by a range of publics and counterpublics animates a broad array of interdisciplinary scholarship relating to democracy and political theory, argumentation and deliberation, citizenship and civic engagement, media ecologies and the press, and institutions and power relations. Habermas originally theorized the emergence of the bourgeois public sphere as a counterpoint to the aristocratic regimes of early modern Europe, aiming to rescue select democratic practices from an otherwise flawed ideology. Critics of Habermas’s early formulation of the bourgeois public sphere have noted the presence of a multiplicity of public spheres, rather than a single public sphere, the problem of the public/private divide that is definitive of the public sphere, the role of bodies and emotions in addition to language and reason in the formation and operation of publics and counterpublics, the role of media technologies in sustaining and expanding critical publicity, and the difficulties in extracting knowledge claims from the power relations that constitute them. The idea of public spheres has remained resilient despite these criticisms, as any functioning democracy requires a space between the family, the market, and the state to thematize, problematize, and address the challenges of life in groups. Strong public spheres are characterized by hospitality to counterpublics, groups that distinguish themselves from the rational-critical debate of dominant publics through different dispositions, styles, and strategies for steering public attention. Scholarship on public spheres, publics, and counterpublics continues to proliferate, with new directions accounting for the increased prominence of visuality, ecology, digitality, and transnationality in deliberating bodies.
James E. Grunig and Jeong-Nam Kim
The concept of publics and related notions such as receivers, audiences, stakeholders, mass, markets, target groups, and the public sphere are central to any discussion of formal communication programs between organizations or other strategic communicators and the individuals or groups with which they strive to communicate. The concept explains why individuals and collectivities of individuals are motivated to communicate for themselves (to seek or otherwise acquire information), with similar individuals to form organized groups, and with formal organizations to make demands on those organizations or to shape the behavior of the organizations. Theories of publics originated in the 1920s as the result of debates over the nature of citizen participation in a democracy, the role of the mass media in forming public opinion, the role of public relations practitioners in the process, and the effects of communicated messages on publics, audiences, and other components of society. J. Grunig developed a situational theory of publics in the 1960s that has served as the most prominent theory of publics for 50 years, and J.-N. Kim and J. Grunig recently have expanded that theory into a situational theory of problem solving. These theories have been used to identify and segment types of publics, to explain the communication behaviors of those publics, to conceptualize the effects of formal communication programs, to understand the cognitive processes of members of publics, and to explain the development of activist groups. Other scholars have suggested additions to these theories or alternatives to more thoroughly explain how communication takes place between members of publics and to identify latent publics that are largely ignored in the situational theories.
Bruce W. Hardy
The relationship between public opinion and journalism has long been a considered a cornerstone of modern functioning democracies. This important relationship has been the focus of scholarship across broad disciplines such as journalism studies, communication, sociology, philosophy, and political science. One hundred and twenty years ago, French sociologist Gabrielle Tarde outlined the press–conversation–opinion–action model to illustrate the role that the press and journalists have on initiating conversation among citizens, forming public opinion, and how this opinion translates into civic action that fosters social change. Highly related to Tarde’s press–conversation–opinion–action model are current theories of journalism and public opinion such as agenda-setting, priming, the two-step flow hypothesis, diffusion of innovation, and the spiral of silence. All of these theories relate to how the press can inform citizens, foster interactions with others, shape their opinions, and mobilize citizens into civic engagement and political action. However, in today’s mobile, digital, and highly segmented communication landscape defined by “post-truth” and “alternative facts” and where emotions resonate more than evidence because of audience biases and identity protective cognition, the problem of the spread of misinformation has caused a great deal of consternation among journalists, pundits, and public opinion scholars, leading to a global rise in fact-checking. But because much of the misleading and deceptive claims in today’s communication environment appear first on social media, there is currently a fervent quest for automated computational fact-checking.
Journalism defined itself as a profession in opposition to sensationalism and propaganda at the beginning of the 20th century. The American Society of News Editors statement of principles was written to codify “sound practice and just aspirations” of journalism after the public learned how the press was complicit in misinforming and deceiving the American people during World War I. As part of a massive propaganda campaign to win support for the war, the government fed false information and misleading stories to the press to make the public see the war as they desired it to be seen. Most definitions of propaganda converge toward the idea of organized influence on group attitudes through manipulation of symbols for a desired purpose of propagandist. The ASNE 1923 statement of principles clearly differentiated journalism from propaganda by its processes (to inform and scrutinize) and its purpose (to hold power accountable). However, many times since then the news media have been often accused of unintentionally becoming one of the most effective vehicles of political propaganda. Journalism’s proximity to the political world, and at the same time its obligation to bring independent and impartial scrutiny to that world, creates a set of contradictions and opens cracks where propaganda can get a foothold. In the political world, truth is to a large degree subjective and irreducible to facts. Journalistic practices that equate truth to a collection of facts, without questioning of why these particular facts are chosen and how they are presented, introduce various biases that amount to propaganda. Subtle suggestions based on facts, and faulty interpretations that do not follow from facts make propaganda truly dangerous because it is hidden behind ideologies of a free and objective press. With the growing mastery of media technology, propaganda is becoming an even more formidable force, perhaps easier to detect but more difficult to combat.