Curran and Granham’s Argument on Public Sphere in Analysing Media Structures

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Studies of media clearly indicate that the media as we know it today largely came into prominence at a point in time when the political ideas of democracy and participation were becoming a political reality (Charles, 2013). This was because it became more obvious that in order to maintain some degree of order in this democratic societies, the constituted authority needed a way in which to generate and shape public opinion, and the tools which were best employed in that regards squarely fall within the purview of media (Hodkinson, 2011). As a result, the power and role media plays in society became a topic of interest to the thinkers of the time. Their thoughts according to Hodkinson (2011) revolved around how the media would be employed in this regard led to the identification of firstly, the public sphere which was the embodiment of that area of society within which societal discuss occurred (Wodak et al, 2008) and secondly, the media structures (Hallin & Mancini, 2004) that operated within said sphere. These structures determined the manner in which media as an institution would function in a particular society and follows from the long been settled idea in media literature that suggests that the content and the quality of content, be it commentary, entertainment or reporting is a direct consequence of the structures within which they are produced (Altmeppen 2006) and this is reflected in the ‘culture’ of said society. This complex view of the relationship between culture and media feeds into questions about the of the nature of the media and its relationship to the public sphere for which it is responsible for overseeing.

The public Sphere

The public sphere as defined by Jakubowitcz, (1997) is that infrastructure that is comprised of the all the institutions that are responsible for managing the propagation of media, the generation of knowledge and the formation of thought within civil society. The operations of these institutions are integral to the development of public opinion which is as much a part of political power as it is essential for democracy to function observes (Goode, 2005). This definition of the public sphere is not without criticism and is at the centre of one of the more prevalent debates in the field of media and journalism. The debates focus mainly on defining the role and function of the media as relates to the mechanics and operations of the public sphere. Arguments and counter arguments continually revise how these concepts are perceived and the relationship between them and despite the fact that some of these arguments are diametrically opposed to each other in how perceive the relationship between the media and the public sphere, there exists a few points of overlap. These points of agreement largely stem from an established definition of some of the terms and concepts that are foundational to any discussion about media and its role in society. To attempt to contribute to this debate, it is therefore important to establish a set of definitions about the public sphere on which the impact of media structures can be assessed.

The most widely recognised definition of the term public sphere can be traced back to the works of Jürgen Habermas (Habermas et al, 1989). Upon conceiving the idea of the public sphere, he saw it as an abstract arena where “rational-critical debate about public issues are conducted by private persons who are willing to let arguments and not status determine decisions” (Calhoun, 1992). His ideas about the nature of the public sphere suggest that is represents an area, physical or abstract, where rational discuss is entertained and stems from his belief that the public sphere is a by-product of an attempt of different factions within society to communicate their views to the larger society. This heralded the development of a public affairs of thought within society and in western culture in particular helped to draw the boundaries within which the often-conflicting ideologies of the upcoming burgiose, the royalty and religion struggled to craft the social narratives with which they could affect their beliefs on the wider society (Madsen, 2008;2009). As a result, early media primarily concerned itself with questions of democracy and how to ensure that the public was well informed on the views of all sides in order to effect quality public debate (Hodkinson, 2011; Gripsrud, & Weibull, 2010).

Over time and with the translation from media to mass media large due to the industrial revolution, the competing authorities started to use the facilities of the media to shape the public sphere. This way in which they did this, coalesced into a number of structures that determined how the media in those societies are employed and was the beginning of a departure from the underlying premise of the importance of public debate to democracy that the media was built on.

Media structures

These structures, which with the aid of technology have grown in size, scope and reach have in many ways experienced decisive changes largely as a result of the societies they operate in. To fully understand the reason for this transformation it is crucial that these media structures be discussed.

Media structures at their core, refer to the different ways media institutions and the companies that comprise them operate (Geber, Scherer & Hefner, 2016). This implies the models that dictate how media institutions function in the societies they occupy observes Hallin & Mancini (2004). In examining media structures, Hallin & Mancini (2004) argue that they are entities borne from the coalescing of organizational rules, norms and regulations within the mass communications landscape that exist within societies and that these structures are distilled by society into institutions which are wholly devoted to continually inform and interpret past and current events within society. Gripsrud & Weibull (2010) expanded on this view with the realisation that these institutions do not operate in vacuums and are thus subject to the society’s political, legal, and social circumstances which they are actively involved in shaping.

Consequently, media structures or systems are indicative of the characteristic traits of the society’s they exist within and are responsible for the connecting the other institutions that subsist within a given society.

(Wieslaw, 200…..) goes on to argue that since media structures are determined by socio-economic circumstances, media functioning, values system, guarantees of freedom of media, political conditions, regulations on the functioning of media organizations and institutions as well as by the level of education and technological advancement, a thorough examination can only the possible by analysing these structures on two parallel paradigms. These paradigms answer questions relating to what content the media structures are generating and how the content is reported and are the determining factors of how ideas and opinions are generated and discussed in the public sphere.

The most widely instantiated media structures were identified by Hallin/Mancini (2004) in their work on the “models of media and politics” distinguished among a liberal structure, a polarized-pluralist structure or model and a democratic-corporatist media structure. These media structures are found to contribute significantly to how the power dynamics of the societies they constitute and offer an entry point into attempting to understand how society functions. These structures are:

•                     The liberal: This media structure is characterized by the relative dominance of market mechanisms and commerce. This translates into the development of relatively high levels of journalistic professionalism, a prevalence of commercial media and limited state involvement in media operations. In the liberal model, the media has the choice of engaging in political activity and thus there exhibits varying levels of political parallelism.

•                     The Democratic Corporatist Structure favours a historical coexistence of commerce and media but with significant ties to organized social and political groups. This model promotes the existence of an active but legally limited role of the state and is typically characterised by a above average development and propagation of mass circulation information bulleting in the form of newspapers and other mass-produced form of media. This model favours a synergy between both commercial and political media and is associated with high political parallelism where the state promotes pluralism of the media system as much as it engages in delivering welfare to its citizens. Fiedler, & Meyen (2015) observes that this model also boasts a well-developed sense of journalistic professionalism in its media landscape.

•                     The third media structure identified by Hallin & Mancini (2004) is the polarized pluralist media model. This media model typically evolves from an integration of the media into party politics which results in the suppression of commercial incentives in media. This media structure often features a strong state presence guiding and detailing the operations of the media, the type of content it generates and how this content is delivered to the citizenry. Hence, a press that addresses politically active elites more than the mass public; a relatively interventionist role of the state; and a lower level of journalistic professionalism.

Media structures and the transformation of media

When the ideas of the role of media are paired with those of the media structures that exist within them, it is possible to understand the media practices of today and why they are a direct consequence of applying these media structures to the fabric of the public sphere.

In the west in particular, where the liberal and democratic corporatist structures were borne, the main observable transformation that has happened to media revolves around its continuous disentanglement from its political underpinnings in society (Garnham, 1996; Strömbäck et al, 2008; Rothstein, 1987). In its role as the vehicle with which societal conversations are steered, the media historically focussed on delivering current affairs relating to the power dynamics within society. This has changed in recent years as media trends tilt towards a more tabloidized approach to content delivery. This is more prevalent in the liberal structures which revised their business models to focus on attracting the most number of consumers in order to attract advertisers (Splichal, 2015). The past decade saw a surge in the profitability of media largely due to the effects of the industrial revolution which, meant that businesses that required advertising to reach many more customers funnelled money into these institutions which in turn forced them to grow in a manner that prioritised profitability. With advances in technology, this profitability has now been threatened by alternative media which has seen a marked rise in such things as free dailies, blogging and internet journalism. This has effectively destroyed the monopoly these legacy media institutions have cultivated over the years forcing them to adopt more financially embedded practices rather than the more cultural and socially embedded origins from which they developed and is the driving force behind the “click-baity”, outrage machine the media has in some respects devolved into. This in turn has forced the political actors to also adopt media logics that favour shock and awe approach in order to elicit media coverage. This phenomenon is referred to by Lucht & Udris (2010) as the “mediatization” effect.

Also, there is a growing concern that the media is beginning to lead the political systems instead of reporting on them. Whereas the media historically was responsible for facilitating the social and political discussion. In a bit to be more commercialised, there is a tendency for media institutions to begin to curate the content they report. This is further magnified with the reliance on media in most developed societies, which means that the media is primarily responsible for relaying social issues to the community (Charles, 2013; Dahlgren, 2013). Thus as the media starts to focus on those topics they know are high interest or would gain them favourable reach and coverage, issues that aren’t as high intensity but are just as important are ignored which alienates certain aspects of the society. While historically, the reliance on media was seen as a positive in that via media, all facets of society are given a voice, as the financial incentives on the media increase it is becomes more common for the media to focus on scandalous, high interest issues that guarantee consumer interest in order to lure businesses that which to advertise their products. Furthermore, there is growing concerns about bias in content delivery which has significantly diminished the media’s credulity (Rothstein, 1987; Murphy & Blankson, 2007).

Another key change that the media has undergone is the widening of the knowledge gap (Strömbäck et al, 2008). This refers to the idea that the ingress of media information into the social fabric of society tends to result in a corresponding increase in the degree of fracturing of socioeconomic segments. This sees those individuals that occupy the higher rungs of the socioeconomic ladder acquiring information at a greater rate than those on the lower rungs. This widens the knowledge gap between these two groups and disenfranchises those on the lower groups as they are unable to participate in social discuss at the same rate. This is especially true for media structures that favour commercial media in that there is a tendency to structure media delivery in a manner that is advantageous to speedy consumption and dissemination and results in a preference for certain media formats.

While in other more authoritarian societies, where the media is largely a tool with which the government maintains control over the citizenry, it is possible to see the footprints of the polarized pluralist structures. In this societies, it is widely accepted that the media is no more than a tool for delivering propaganda and while certain overlaps exist in the form of content type and manner of delivery, it is largely due to the universality of the delivery mechanism like tv and the internet (Hallin & Mancini, 2012;2011).

This analysis agrees with the views of both Curran and Garnham who, in considering the influence the media has on society and in particular the public sphere present in societies, have observed a series of changes in those spheres. These changes include:

•                     the shift from national information markets to mostly international market

•                     The emphasis on digital content delivery mechanisms like the television and the internet

•                     The creation of information market divides between the information rich and the information poor

•                     And most importantly, a departure from public service ethos of the media

These ideas on the function of the public sphere are foundational to the arguments made by both Curran and Garnham and in Curran’s case, he went on to break down the Habermas’s views on the public sphere, distilling it into three distinct ways the public sphere could be perceived or employed.

The first is the marxist/communist perspective that sees the public sphere as a tool of the state. In this view, he argues that the public sphere is used solely for the dissemination of propaganda by the powers that be. This perspective matches with the application of the polarised pluralist structure of media where media and its content are significantly policed and controlled by the state. Hence any developments in media in this approach has to be in line with the objectives of the state.

Secondly, he argues that another perspective from which the public sphere can be observed is that of a battleground. One where contending ideas vie for supremacy with everyone being able to present their ideas without fear. This view maps to that of the liberal media structure and sees the different elements that make up the media compete for the audience and coverage.

Thirdly, he viewed the public sphere as the mechanism via which the citizenry exercise control over the state. The democratic corporatist structure appears to be an inverted form of this view in that, through media, social groups have an opportunity to effect change on the community by appealing to the state. The ability of these groups to shape public opinion forces the state to take them seriously and act in a manner that preserves their interests.

This view similarly mirrored Garnham’s (2007) conclusions on Habermas’s works on the public sphere. In applying the definition to the modern era, Garnham was able to observe that for Habermas to have come to his definition, he has to accept that there existed a substrate on which every variant of the public sphere regardless of its character was built. He suggests that this substrate is a network of institutions without which society cannot exist politically. This allowed him to observe the transformation that that was happening to media structures over time.

His observations revolved around the trends which saw the development of what he called information rich and information poor halves of the media landscape. This spurred an emphasis of digital media which progressively leaned towards encouraging domestic modes of consumption and resulted in the destruction of idea that cultural resources ought to be dedicated towards positive public service.

In conclusion, when applied to the current media landscape, there exists obvious utility in the notion that what obtains today is a direct evolution of those ideas about media structures and their role on the public sphere as such when looking at how the media has transformed it is possible to see the lingering effects of these structures and their present-day iterations. Both Curran and Garnham subscribe to the idea that “the possibility of arriving at a rationally grounded consensus can only be demonstrated in practice by entering into a concrete and historically specific process of rational debate with other human beings (…) the task is to cooperate in building the political, economic and communication institutions.” (Garnham, 1996) This they believe is central to the idea of democracy and for this democracy to persist the media has a duty to encourage participation in societal discuss by ensuring that competing arguments and views are presented objectively and wholly, and they insist that this is a responsibility of the media and of the citizenry.

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