Part Two: Culture and Contexts

18 Who is ‘the Public’?


Our introduction post about Media and Democracy shows that an existing public is a legitimising ‘must-have’ for democracy. Still, there are varying concepts and understandings of a public. A look at basic definitions and early adaptations of the term might help to understand what this ‘public’ is and who its members are.

One basic understanding of ‘a public’ describes it as groups of people that evolve in response to issues, which are important for the individuals concerned. These individuals are the citizens that elect the state. This early concept has been brought up by John Dewey (1927).  In Dewey’s understanding the public as such comes into being when significant issues that affect them negatively arise. Only then do they band together and make themselves heard in the political process.

Puerta del Sol, Madrid
worldwide protests for more democracy and democratic change Puerta del Sol, Madrid, 20 May 2011, by Julio Albarran under cc-by-nc-sa

However, it needs to be noted that not everyone agrees. Two times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Walter Lippmann in his books The Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1927) argued that it is a human tendency to view the world through “stereotypes” and thus construct an understanding of the world using partial truths. This makes them incompetent as directors of public affairs and, he contends, the modern world is too complex for ordinary citizens. Therefore the public’s opinion is unreliable, incoherent and thus irrelevant to the political process. In other words, it is practically nonexistent.

While Dewey and Lippmann had an ongoing discourse about their different understandings of the public, its existence and shape is still the centre of debate today. See also the section, Habermas’ Public Sphere.


  1. Which events in recent history provoked the formation of a public? Can you think of any in Australia or New Zealand?


Dewey, J. (1927). The public and its problems: An essay in political inquiry. New York: Holt.

Lippmann, W. (1927). The Phantom Public: Transaction Publishers.

Lippmann, W. (1946). Public Opinion: Transaction Publishers.


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