There is no immediate or absolute relationship between the media and democracy in the sense that, without media, there could be no democracy. Similarly, it does not follow that with the (modern) media comes democracy. Autocracies exist wherein the media supports a political system, and likewise, democracies exist wherein the media works to undermine a political system. However, most often the media and democracy are viewed as supporting each other. This connection is the product of a long historical development, one peculiar to European (and North American) societies, involving not only institutions and practices directly linked to the media-based and democratic processes, but numerous other institutions (such as education, the political system, religion, etc.) as well. The media are not the only institutions that promote (or do not promote) democratic legitimacy. Other major institutions of such influence include education, religion, public authority, cultural institutions, and political systems, among others. From a wider societal viewpoint, the role of the media is rather reduced in influence. If, for example, an education system is based on ethnic or other forms of segregation, or if there is widespread religious intolerance, or if public authority suffers from corruption, it is obvious that the media has only so many resources to encourage systemic legitimacy. The fundamental interrelatedness of different social institutions makes it difficult, or even impossible, to study the media as a phenomenon isolated from the rest of society. For this reason, we should be careful when making comparisons between the media in different countries, even the media outlets within liberal democracies. In addition, there is no consensus as to the right balance of media and other social institutions in a democracy. Throughout the history of democracy, the relations between institutions (the political system, economy, media, and civil society) have undergone renegotiations and adjustments during times of crisis. Over the past few decades, this relationship appears to have reached a new crisis, one that continues to this day and still lacks a clear solution. In many countries, civil society–based media reform movements have been established with clear goals to further democratize media systems. One of the key arguments of these movements has centered on the contradiction between the constitutional obligations of democratic countries and the reality that, in practice, these rights do not apply equally to all. There remain major differences today between different social groups in terms of open access to and the unrestricted availability of information, the ability to utilize information according to one’s needs, having a voice represented by decision-makers, and respect for privacy and personal integrity.
Ran Wei and Larry Zhiming Xu
The ongoing revolution in information and communication technologies (ICTs) has fundamentally transformed the landscape of democracy and the way people engage in politics. From the configuration of media systems to the decision-making of the voting public, the changes have permeated through almost every level of society, affecting political institutions, political actors, citizen groups, and mass media. For each aspect, a synopsis of classical and emergent political communication theories, contemporary and contentious political issues, and cutting-edge research adds to the discussion of new media. The discussion is unfolded with an account of research of new media effects on politics in international setting and cross-cultural contexts with insights of how Western theories and research apply (or fail to) in international contexts.
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.
Scientific advances, technological development, and changes in risk consciousness have led to stronger demands on society to manage and control various kinds of risks. Risks should be assessed, prevented, controlled, and communicated in order to prevent negative impacts. Risks related to the environment and health are probably some of the most research-dependent examples. It is primarily scientific experts that provide knowledge to authorities, organizations, and citizens about environmental and health risks and thus exert considerable influence on the understanding and management of risk. At the same time, there are actors in society—especially citizen and interest organizations—that question whether risk regulation is reliable and relevant. There are also demands that citizens should have more transparency and control over risk regulation. The current situation is characterized thus by a paradox: Issues relating to environment and health are seen as increasingly expert dependent while citizens simultaneously demand increased influence over them. This development is especially noticeable in the European Union, with its strong emphasis on the rights of citizen and consumers to have access to information about risk and also opportunities to influence their regulation. In response to this situation, risk governance has been put forward. It refers to a body of ideas for how to more responsibly and efficiently deal with complex risks issues, where there are different interests and standpoints about how to regulate them. Fundamental ideas of risk governance are openness, transparency, participation, inclusion, deliberation, and reflexivity; that experts involved should be open to questioning the situation; should not conceal issues of uncertainty and pluralism (that there exist different legitimate understandings, evaluations, and recommendations); and should be receptive to the input and participation of other stakeholders. This means that risk regulation should no longer be organized into three discrete activities: risk assessment, risk management, and risk communication (aiming at a one-way transfer of knowledge from the regulators to the public).
Nathan A. Crick
When John Dewey announced that communication was the most wonderful of all affairs, he recognized the centrality of communication within the tradition of American pragmatism. In other traditions of philosophy, such as idealism or empiricism, communication certainly played a role, but usually it was a secondary function of transmitting ideas from one mind to another. In idealism, ideas were discovered through intuitive revelation of the whole and only later expressed through transcendent eloquence, whereas in empiricism, particular data was attained purely by the senses and communication served a kind of documentary function of fact gathering. Pragmatism, however, inverted this traditional hierarchy. By arguing that the meaning of our ideas was only found in their effects and consequences in experience, particularly those consequences brought about through shared experience, pragmatists made communication both the origin and consummation of knowledge—regardless if that knowledge was practical, scientific, aesthetic, or social. Consequently, pragmatists believed that improving the quality of communication practices was central to improving not only the state of knowledge but the quality of our experience living together in a common world.
While the periodizing concept “post-truth” (PT) initially appeared in the United States as a key word of popular politics in the form “post-truth politics” or “post-truth society,” it quickly appeared in many languages. It is now the object of increasing scholarly attention and public debate. Its popular and academic treatments sometimes differ in respect to its meaning, but most associate it with communication forms such as fake or false news, rumors, hoaxes, and political lying. They also identify causes such as polarization and unethical politicians or unregulated social media; shoddy journalism; or simply the inevitable chaos ushered in by digital media technologies. PT is sometimes posited as a social and political condition whereby citizens or audiences and politicians no longer respect truth (e.g., climate science deniers or “birthers”) but simply accept as true what they believe or feel. However, more rigorously, PT is actually a breakdown of social trust, which encompasses what was formerly the major institutional truth-teller or publicist—the news media. What is accepted as popular truth is really a weak form of knowledge, opinion based on trust in those who supposedly know. Critical communication approaches locate its historical legacy in the earliest forms of political persuasion and questions of ethics and epistemology, such as those raised by Plato in the Gorgias. While there are timeless similarities, PT is a 21st-century phenomenon. It is not “after” truth but after a historical period where interlocking elite institutions were discoverers, producers, and gatekeepers of truth, accepted by social trust (the church, science, governments, the school, etc.). Critical scholars have identified a more complex historical set of factors, to which popular proposed solutions have been mostly blind. Modern origins of PT lie in the anxious elite negotiation of mass representative liberal democracy with proposals for organizing and deploying mass communication technologies. These elites consisted of pioneers in the influence or persuasion industries, closely associated with government and political practice and funding, and university research. These influence industries were increasingly accepted not just by business but also by (resource-rich) professional political actors. Their object was not policy education and argument to constituents but, increasingly strategically, emotion and attention management. PT can usefully be understood in the context of its historical emergence, through its popular forms and responses, such as rumors, conspiracies, hoaxes, fake news, fact-checking, and filter bubbles, as well as through its multiple effects—not the least of which the discourse of panic about it.
Catherine Chaput and Joshua S. Hanan
Depending on how you approach it, economic justice is either an extremely old intellectual tradition or a relatively new one. From the first perspective, economic justice is part and parcel of classical political philosophy—Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s The Politics, for instance, both discuss property distribution in an ideal society, emphasizing the philosophy of justice over economic precepts. From the second perspective, the one we embrace, economic justice is a uniquely modern inquiry that emerged with the writings of Karl Marx and his revolutionary critique of the capitalist political economy. For Marx, economic justice can be understood as a critical enterprise that attempts to locate contradictions between universal and particular conceptions of human freedom and intervene politically into these contradictions with the aim of creating a more just, equitable, and egalitarian society. So conceived, economic justice liberates the collective potential of humanity from its exploitation and degradation by capitalism as well as the various legal institutions it develops to control human behavior for the purpose of extracting of surplus-value. It is this Marxist perspective and the various historical reformulations that it has authorized that influence the way rhetoricians and scholars of cultural studies conceptualize economic justice in the discipline of communication. While not all of these scholars endorse an explicitly Marxist line of thought, they all attempt to conceptualize economic justice as a normative political category that influences various models of rhetorical agency and social change.
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.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Congress, with allies in the news media, created legislation that came to be known as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It was designed to help hold the federal executive accountable to the public. It became law in 1966. Its significance can be understood in several contexts: (1) in connection with a special relationship of journalists to the operation of the FOIA; (2) in terms of arguments that transparency in government is necessary for citizens’ informed participation in democracy and that, on the other side, there are strong democratic arguments that transparency should be limited in the pursuit of other legitimate values, some of them recognized in the language of the FOIA itself that government agencies may deny a citizen's request for information on the grounds that honoring the request could endanger national security, personal privacy, the integrity of internal government deliberations, or other significant objectives; and (3) that freedom of information law are one institution within a wider web of institutions and practices dedicated to holding government accountable. In this regard, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act can also be seen in a broad context of a cultural shift toward “openness” and a political shift toward what has been called a “monitory” model of democracy.