Monday, February 25, 2008

Crossroads of power: The media, democracy, and the audience

The media has long been seen as an access-gate to democracy and an important contributor to a knowledgeable citizenry. However in today’s corporate age there is a growing sense of audience disengagement in the face of the agenda-setting power of the media combined with its rampant commercialisation. It is the contention of this paper that if the media doesn’t offer access to power for its audiences, then they will seize it for themselves. The paper will examine the history of the citizen-critic in relation to the media. The media plays a major role in shaping opinion and policy and offering interpretation of public events. The more the audience engages with the media’s interpretation, the more engaged they become with the democratic process. But journalism is just as capable of restricting the flow of information as providing it. This restriction occurs as the media become political players themselves. They have an agenda-setting role which is particularly noticeable during election periods. Political parties attempt to counter the media agenda by focussing the discussion on issues they are perceived to “own”. The challenge is for politicians to consider the media needs of their audiences. This perception is set by opinion polls which have their own, often negative, impact on political campaigns. There is also a challenge posed by the dumbing down of the media as they become more commercialised. In contrast, alternative media such as public access broadcasting and the Internet are providing audiences with ways to reclaim the agenda and develop their sense of citizenship in new ways.

To begin with, it is helpful to examine some historical senses of citizenship. Promotion of democracy and citizenship was central to the purpose of early printer-editors such as Benjamin Franklin. They left an important legacy of a free press and freedom of speech which are now considered essential elements in a healthy democracy. Anthony Lewis wrote that the First Amendment did not protect the press for its own sake but to enable a free political system to operate on behalf of “the citizen-critic of the government”. The concept of a citizen signifies the right of an individual to full membership of, and participation in, an independent political society. According to the social responsibility theory of the press, media operators are obliged to make sure all significant viewpoints of the citizenry are represented and this was a matter for the public as much as owners and editors to decide. These views could be contested in the public sphere. According to Habermas, the public sphere was a realm that was autonomous of the state and the market place. This was required because power exists in both the sphere of the state and the economic realm. But although public opinion is able to reach judgements on public matters, it is not the public but groups and organisations backed by sophisticated public relations which actually shape policy decisions and outcomes. Therefore while the concept of public opinion is important, it is a contested space of competing interests.

Journalism plays a major role in creating the shape of this contested space. For most people, political opinion is not directly shaped by politics but is mediated by news accounts. Lippman described how people gradually build a trustworthy picture inside their heads of the world beyond their reach conveyed to them by the media. The media limits the freedom of policy makers to select among the available policy options and channels that selection in one or other direction. Therefore, journalists play a crucial role in forming understanding of public policy. According to Adam, journalism is an act of imagination which “produces the forms of public consciousness that makes collective existence possible”. This means that as well as reporting the news, journalists also interpret it in order to make sense of issues and events.

News interpretation requires an active audience. Norris et al's landmark research into Britain’s 1997 election found that the short-term impact of the news media is greatly exaggerated. Studies show that audiences consume news in a sporadic way and flit from story to story without following them to completion. However, they also established that people who were more attentive to the news were more knowledgeable and had higher levels of civic engagement. The more stimuli about politics people receive, the greater the likelihood is they will participate in politics and the greater the depth of their participation. Norris et al saw this process as a “virtuous circle” with the media providing a positive cumulative effect. Active audiences engage with, and enrich, the news they receive.

However, positive audience consumption of news does depend on the quality of the news itself. Journalistic practices can restrict the flow and quality of information to the audience. The journalist’s need to produce a good story is often antithetical to the practice of writing investigative journalism. Investigative journalism is news in its truest sense; the striving to bring to public attention something someone does not want the public to know. Yet the final product of investigative journalism is often complicated to read, un-entertaining and inconclusive. The desire to print more entertaining stories exacerbates the trend towards “tabloidisation” which impedes the audience’s civic competence. The result is an increasingly downmarket media and a less informed citizenry.

This downmarket pull may also be driven by political considerations. The media are political actors in their own right. The way the media present stories and events produces a carefully constructed world in which some voices are allowed to speak and some are not. In their influence book "Policing the Crisis" Hall et al say that the twin demands of deadlines and the need to be impartial combine to produce a systematic over-accessing to the media of those in powerful and privileged positions. Other critics have attacked journalism for its ideological effects and role in reproducing the capitalist order in choosing sources as mouthpieces of their authority. Researchers show that media content is best conceived as the outcome of an unequal relationship between sources and journalists; a relationship that is often manipulated by those making the information available. But the audience is not well served by this battle of agendas between the media and their sources.

The media’s agenda-setting power is particularly prevalent during election times. The theory of agenda-setting suggests that the media tell people not “what to think” but “what to think about”. The media are often more participants than observers in election contests wielding power in setting agendas, the coverage of campaign events and issues, and even in the outright support of political parties. Other studies suggest that this results in a process of confirmation of prejudices rather than one of challenging assumptions. In Australia, media coverage reinforces the dominance of the major parties as well as the over-concentration on the party leaders. Control of the agenda affords great power to the media to affect democratic outcomes.

Political actors are quick to act in response to media agenda-setting practices. Election campaigns invariably veer towards issues which favour the candidates. Theories of issue ownership suggest that it is difficult for parties to gain electoral advantage on issues they do not “own”. The news media see themselves as major players in politics but lack governing responsibility or a guiding philosophy other than a negative challenging of all comers. Many politicians have attempted to get around this. In his 1992 election campaign, Bill Clinton maximised control over the media message by cultivating talk show hosts, MTV and similar programs where he was able to focus on stories and issues where he enjoyed a favourable reputation. Exposure on these “alternative” programs made it possible for him to connect with voters and explain his policy positions without being interrupted by his draft record or his infidelities. The intimate communication of television means it is an excellent medium to elicit an emotional response that reinforces a difficult political message or distracts from policy shortcomings. Similarly, research in Britain into the radio phone-in program Election Call showed the vast majority of callers were pleased with their involvement in the show. Their satisfaction was related to their ability to influence public agenda and to have their concerns taken seriously. It is possible therefore, to subvert the media agenda-setting powers with adroit use of the media’s own facilities.

These examples show up a paradox in the relationship between media and politicians and how this relationship impacts the audience. The major parties have great faith in the media but fear its power. Yet ever since Lazarsfeld’s seminal study (1944), it has been clear that mass media do not change people’s voting intentions and at best have a reinforcement effect. It is not the transmission of news that counts, it is the selective construction of images and events which are influenced by the negotiations and conflicts that occur within the news organisation. Audience studies acknowledge the potential for a “boomerang effect” in the communication of propaganda and ideas where the intended meaning can be inverted by members of the audience. Kiosis found evidence between the number of cynical stories in the news media and the lack of public confidence in the press. Others believe there is a restoration of substance occurring in political communication. According to research on radio talk shows, people do ask questions that are “overwhelmingly issues oriented”, obliging politicians to offer more information about their policies. Media images shape people’s view of the world and their deepest values. Politicians need to understand their audience to effectively use the media to communicate their messages.

One audience tool used extensively by the media and political parties is opinion polls. What the polls say is often the major news reported by the media during an election campaign. Media polls on voting intentions and leadership approval have become a deeply entrenched characteristic of election contests. The 1990 Australian Election Survey found that 60 per cent of voters take “some” or “quite a lot” of notice in polls. Polls generate their own momentum and can contribute to a “horserace” style reporting of election. Critics of polls say these horserace reports frame campaign news coverage as a contest and encourage journalists to avoid qualitative coverage of issues and leaders. Nevertheless, they remain an important part of the political process and provide a voice for the public in the political debate. Even if only as a symbolic gesture, they convey the impression of an involved electorate and at their best actively contribute to the public agenda.

Not all media content has this sense of public good. A worrying trend is that stories of apparent interest to the public have replaced stories in the public interest. The global first-tier media firms act as a cartel whose sole goal is to seek commercial gain in a congenial political and economic environment. In order to serve their shareholders these conglomerates are given over to entertainment and devote only a small part of their content to public affairs. New LA Times editor James O’Shea who is battling against shrinking budgets and falling circulations, recognises the problem when he said “we need to tell readers more about Barack Obama and less about Britney Spears”. The challenge therefore is for media to find ways of drawing in audiences for Obama as much as for Britney. Channel Seven’s director of news Peter Meakin believes the only way media can successfully cover political issues in the future is through interactivity. This means campaigning on public issues using advice segments, audience kits and advocating political activism. The difficulty for media is to actively engage their audiences without losing audience share.

Disaffected audiences are turning to newer media for more democratic access. Public access broadcasting fulfils an important function for democracy by providing a forum for citizen views and opinions. There is evidence to suggest that community broadcasting offers a sense of empowerment to audiences and creates an environment where community voices can be heard. According to Hartley, public broadcasting breaks down the distinction between viewing and program maker and provides social groups of all kinds a chance to communicate not only to their own communities but also to larger publics. The Internet is also capable of returning power to audiences. Wheeler saw the Internet as nothing less than an “electronic landscape for a reinvented civil society”. In 1997 he predicted millions of people would adopt the technology and engage in political discourse without interference of governments, regulators and owners. And to some degree, the rise of the blogosphere has borne him out. With almost 8 million blogs worldwide by March 2005, they have gained increasing audience size and political influence, especially in the US. A 2004 PANPA bulletin report cited Fairfax research which found 83 per cent of Australian respondents visited a news website at least twice a week. But there is no simple theory that can be used to anticipate how people will use the new services of the Internet or how society might be affected as a result. Montgomery believes the new digital media can play a significant role in developing thoughtful and active citizens. Audiences appropriate media output for their own purposes which they discuss and subvert to produce their own interpretations. In the online world, the way people access news is evolving. Use of Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and web-feeds is encouraging the use of “personalised news” which has the potential to increase public engagement in news coverage by encouraging citizens to become better informed about current events. This tailoring practice is not without its dangers if people choose only the information that reinforces their beliefs and values. But the overwhelming impression is that public broadcasting and the Internet have re-invigorated a sense of public participation in the media.

There has been a long interlocking history between media and its citizen audience. The power of journalism has long shaped public policy. Active audiences engaged with the material to enhance their sense of citizenship. But as the quality of the news has declined, so has citizen participation. This has not been helped by the contest of power between the media and their sources. The media has an important agenda-setting power which politicians react to, and attempt to circumvent. Audience considerations are not well served by this battle between media and political players. Audiences consider opinion polls important but they also have a tendency to reduce the quality of political debate. Meanwhile the rampant commercialisation of media is reducing the quantity of political debate. As a result audiences are turning to newer, independent media to express their opinions. Out on the independent fringes, forums such as public broadcasting and Internet allow the citizen audience to speak loud and clear. The challenge for corporate media is to heed this voice.

No comments: