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Critically examine the role of the media in the contemporary
public sphere

When undertaking a critical examination, it is important to first examine
the context of that which is being discussed. What actually is the public
sphere? What or whom does it represent? Answers to these questions are
necessary before one can effectively break down the media role in such a
complex structure as the public sphere. The integral parts of the public
sphere have undergone changes in recent decades and this shall be
addressed, alongside the changing media both technologically and
ideologically throughout this period of recent transition. Whilst there are
many influencing factors over inclusivity or exclusivity of individuals to the
public sphere, recent changes have rendered previous models ineffective.
With the ever expanding plethora of internet based networking, blogging
and news agency broadcasting, the boundaries between who is in and
who is out have been somewhat blurred. This has forced a change in the
way the media operate, and it is a change that is not finished. The
traditional media structure is still in the process of adapting to such
technological advances and according to some journalists, is on the edge
of a micro-recession. I shall investigate the current influences the media
has over the public sphere and will conclude by offering insight into its
possible future influence. What will become of the media influence over
the public sphere?

Over the last 30 years, the public sphere has emerged as a ‘concept
[...] which could make possible a free and legal exchange of
views’(Holland: 2004.p68), which of course offers a somewhat utopian
idea of everybody having access to, and input in this public sphere.
Historically however, it has taken over a century to prize it from the
clutches of the bourgeoisie, who have traditionally horded both access to,
and production of the media that so heavily influences the topics of
discussion within the public sphere. The old fashioned model of the

bourgeois staring down their noses at the working class still holds true to
some publications, even today. In fact, the concept of everybody having a
voice had not materialised until as late as the mid 90s, when the internet
started to appear more consistently in the homes of the public, although
primarily in the conventional ‘west’. There are, of course, parts of the
globe to which internet access is not abundant, and this must be
acknowledged. Still, as more people began to have access to a platform
which allowed the individual to broadcast their own media, at relatively
inexpensive cost, the public were given the ability to express their own
opinions without the need to print, distribute and fund it. Moving forward
to the most contemporary era and one can literally star their own news
broadcasting website accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

So it is established that the public sphere has emerged from the
dark ages and entered into a more user friendly forum for public debate,
but where do the media fall into such a structure? The simple answer is, of
course, at the very top. It is true that all public discussion requires a focal
point, a common ground, and the media provide this with their news
broadcasts, soap operas and various other entertainment productions.
When discussion erupts in the local salon, coffee house or even bus stop,
you can be sure with relative accuracy that it will be around the
happenings on Eastenders, or the latest scoop from one of the
newspapers. The public now has more access to information than in
previous years and in particular the events of parliament, so one could
assume that public debate on a political front will be more informed and
aware. However ‘the coming of the information society has failed to
create a common citizenship based upon a general access of information’
(Stevenson:2002.p53). Stevenson argues that the public sphere does not
hold true to utopian views of a democratic forum for debate and
discussion, and in fact ‘is now subsumed into a stage managed political
theatre’ (2002:p50). The idea of freedom of a public sphere as been
superseded by the manipulation of politics on media as opposed to
media’s ability to remain unbiased and unassuming. The use of the media

to generate public image within the sphere has hampered the ability of
the media to present ultimate truth and un-tampered fact.

Stevenson furthers this notion through the description that the
public are ‘depoliticized masses are excluded from the central debates of
our political culture’ (Stevenson:2002.p53). Even with the free-flow of
politically based information the public sphere remains autonomous to
democratic political debate. One of the explanations for this could lie in
‘compassion fatigue’ and its apparent effects on both journalists
producing the stories, and the public consumption of them. The concept of
compassion fatigue relies on the continuous bombardment of repetitive
news stories effectively de-sensitising the audience to the magnitude of
what is being presented. It means ‘becoming so used to the spectacle of
dreadful events, misery or suffering that we stop noticing them’
(Tester:2001.p13). The transformation of news from information to
‘infotainment’ has resulted in the ‘commercialisation and commodification
of the popular press [and] undermined their ability to act as rational
centres of debate’ (Stevenson:1995.p53). Stevenson believes the constant
exaggeration and manipulation of news events has rendered the popular
press partially unreliable as a source of reference when discussing politics
in the public sphere. Some of this sensationalist news can be due to the
media assumption that ‘Joe (average) is largely incompetent to face the
increasingly complex issues of the day’(Warhover:2000.p43). The
necessity to keep the news interesting leads to heavily manipulation and
somewhat simplification of the facts. Essentially then, the media grasp on
the political facet of the public sphere is that of a monopoly, controlling
the flow of information, along with the content of this flow.

The extent of media control can be realised through society’s
dependence on it for information, with people spending more free time
with media sources than ever before. McCullagh believes ‘the mass media
– particularly television - have become the cultural epicentre of our world’
(McCullagh:2002.p1) with ‘media consumption [being] the predominant
activity in the domestic sphere in industrialised society, second only to
work in terms of time spent’ (2002.p2). The sheer magnitude of media

reach into the homes of realistically 100% of western homes in one shape
or form is staggering, further tightening its grip on the public sphere.
Besides total relinquish of outside communication, it is inescapable as
newspapers, magazines, television, radio, the internet and all other forms
of media are at every junction, in every doorway, on all journeys and
everything in between.

With this uncompromising bombardment of media production
saturating western society, there is a risk that production values have
grown to outweigh political content. As Stevenson puts it ‘the public
sphere has become dominated by a depthless symbolic culture that relies
upon display and ceremony, rather than open democratic decision –
making procedures’ (Stevenson:2002.p51). So rather than being ‘a social
space where the authority of better argument could be asserted against
the established status quo’ (2002.p49), it has been hijacked by those it
was originally meant to free the public from. Instead of being an un-
manipulated truly democratised space where all members of the public
could express themselves, it has been managed into a tightly controlled
zone of political bias - media at the reigns.

To what extent and on what level then does ‘Joe average’ use the
information provided by media outlets the world across? The statement
‘Journalism, like any other narrative which is the work of human agency is
essentially ideological’ (McNair:2002.p6), would suggest that the roots of
media production lie deep in the fabric of society’s ideals, and often
represent those of the creator of such ideals. The media effectively
teaches society how to think, feel and aspire, placing them at the
forefront of the public sphere hierarchy. The workings of Stuart Hall on
Encoding/Decoding (1980) allows a more in depth analysis of this
subliminal broadcasting of ideals, believing ‘the moments of encoding and
decoding, though only ‘relatively autonomous’ in relation to the
communicative process as a whole, are determinate moments’
(Hall:1973,p167). In capitalist systems the process of media consumption
is circular and by virtue of supply and demand, the audience in effect has
an influence on the ideals and messages produced by journalists

themselves. The popularity and longevity of media productions depends
on its reception by the public. Therefore, Hall would argue that as a core
component of the public sphere, the media is actually influenced heavily
by the members of it. Effectively, the public sphere is emperor unto itself,
and the media are just a fragmented part of this structure, albeit a
defining one.

The true extent to the media influence on the public sphere,
although difficult to quantify, is complex and more importantly, vast.
Surrounding the public sphere with influences from all directions has
historically allowed the media to mould and shape it whilst clouding it
enough to distract the public from issues the political forces wish to be
ignored. The assumption that the public are incapable of dealing with the
complexity of most political issues has led to an effective ‘dumbing-down’
of their coverage, and led to a ‘de-politicized’ society. A society incapable
of deconstructing political messages, and looking to the nearest media
outlet to go through this process for them, allows for the political powers
to manipulate public opinion with relative ease and gives power to the
media to have the overall say in the same. Affording the media with such
power is a dangerous notion and one that can have dramatic effects on
society as a whole.

With the introduction of the internet to the public forum, the world
has seen a change to the very core of the public sphere, and one which
has yet to find its metaphorical feet. With hyper-connectivity at the centre
of most media outlets current plans for progression, the transition from
physical newspapers to online platforms has begun, and is picking up
speed. As yet, the media industry has yet to capitalise financially on this
development but once accomplished the need for paper delivery will be
redundant. With internet technologies such as Twitter, Wordpress,
Facebook and many other applications, the grip the media has on the
public sphere will be loosened somewhat, but it is down to the public
themselves to realise this and capture a larger stake in its structural
prism. Only time will tell as to the absolute ramifications of transformation

from hardback to ‘e-back’, but the certainty of the impact on the media
influence of the public sphere will appear bruised, but not battered.

Cottle, Simon (ed.) (2003) ‘News, Public Relations and Power’ London,

Garnham, Nicholas (1986) ‘The Media and the Public Sphere’, in Peter
Golding, Graham Murdock, and Philip Schlesinger (eds.) ‘Communicating
Politics: Mass Communications and the Political Process’, Leicester,
Leicester University Press [Also in Garnham 1990]

Hall, Stuart (1973) ‘Encoding/Decoding’ in durham, M.G Kellner, D.(eds)
‘Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks’. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers

Holland, Patricia (2004) ‘The Politics of the Smile’, in Cynthia Carter and
Linda Steiner (eds.) ‘Media and Gender’, Maidenhead: Open University

McCullagh, Ciaran (2002) ‘Media Power: A Sociological Introduction’ New
York, Palgrave

McNair, Brian (1994) ‘News and Journalism in the UK’, London: Routeledge

McNair, Brian (1998) ‘The Sociology of Journalism’ London, Oxford
University Press

Stevenson, Nick (2002) ‘Understanding Media Cultures’ London, Sage

Tester, Kieth (2001) ‘Compassion Fatigue and the ethics of the journalistic
field’ in ‘Compassion, Morality and the Media’, Buckingham: Open
University Press

Warhover, Thomas A (2000) ’Public Journalism and the Press: The Virginia
Pilot Experience’ Anthony J Eksterowicz and Robert N Roberts (eds.)
Oxford, Rowman and Little Publishers Inc.