One key tenet of a liberal democracy, the dominant form of government today, is the separation of powers into the various independent branches of government, usually in the form of the legislature that makes the laws, a judiciary that interprets and applies the law and an executive that carries out the administration and operations of governing. Societies in the past were relatively small and citizens were able to engage face-to-face or via handwritten messages in their deliberation and decision-making process. As populations grew larger participation in a democracy required mediation, i.e. communication is now mediated. The earliest mass media was the newspaper, followed by the radio and television, and today, the Internet.
Because of its emerging function as a watchdog that monitors the running of the nation by exposing excesses and corruption, and holding those in power accountable, the media was regarded as the fourth estate, supplementing the three branches of government by providing checks and balances. The media also plays a more basic role as a provider of information necessary for rational debate. A healthy functioning democracy is predicated on the electorate making informed choices and this in turn rests on the quality of information that they receive. The media, as an institution, has for a long time enjoyed the position as a trusted primary source of news and information. Due to the enlarging population, it has become no longer possible for every citizen to participate directly in the democratic process. This led to the the representational form of democracy where representatives speak and act on behalf of individuals. The media, in this environment, took on the role of being a voice of the people to those in government.
This evolution of the media into a place where the public can participate in the democratic process prompted Dahlgrens (1995) to separate the mediated public sphere into four dimensions in order to understand it better. The media can be studied as an institution. Is the media independent or state owned? Do they serve the public’s interest or a narrow range of interests belonging to the owners of the media? Are government funded and government regulated media institutions used for public service or are they propaganda mouthpieces? When private corporations own the media are they furthering their own commercial interests or the public’s?
In the face of these developments, questions have also been raised about the media’s representation of the public. Because journalists, and by extension the media, are seen now as a representative of the public, questions are raised over whether there is a wide enough range of opinion to represent the public’s interests. As the media becomes increasingly commercial there are also questions about the quality of the news and information, which may be compromised when the media focus more on entertainment to retain their audiences’ attention. Entertainment is often seen as emotive and the antithesis of rational discussion. There are also concerns that the role of the citizens are now reduced to a passive observer whose only democratic function is to cast the final vote.
In the face of these developments, Dahlgren questions the general social structure that is now evolving and the role media play. What are the relationships between the public and the existing social structures? How do the newer, alternative media forms fit into the present environment? What is the relationship between them and the traditional media?
Finally, Dahlgren highlights the issues pertaining to the decline of face-to-face interaction. With the media taking over the space where people used to meet face-to-face, is the traditional social practice of people assembling together threatened? In the face of globalisation people are more dispersed. Can the media mitigate the loss of this human link? Is it essential that this human link be maintained?
Under this section democratic legitimation through the formation of publics and public opinion is discussed. This section will clarify “who is the public?” as well as an introduction of the fundamental model of Habermas’ public sphere.
- The last two paragraphs already draw the attention on the media’s role in democracy. What role should the media ideally play in your opinion?
- In contrast, what role is the media fulfilling now?
Dahlgren, P. (1995). Television and the Public Sphere. London: Sage.
Dahlgren, P. (2001). The transformation of democracy. In Axford, B. & Huggins, R. (eds.). New Media and Politics. London: Sage. pp. 64-88.