Date of Award

2005

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Communications Honours

School

School of Communications & Multimedia

Faculty

Faculty of Communications and Creative Industries

First Advisor

Dr Dennis Wood

Abstract

Jurgen Habermas’s theory of an eroded public sphere is common to media studies that address the functions and shortfalls of news media in society. The theory tackles many aspects of society, but is most usually associated with the mass media and its role in facilitating informed public debate among private persons coming together as a public to hold institutions of power to account. The term has been used to such a degree that its authority is taken as rote, which has subsequently reduced the complexity, subtleties and strength of Jurgen Habermas’s original arguments. In turn, this has caused critics to question the most fundamental aspects of the theory: is there just one sphere?: are the public merely acquiescent dupes of the mass media?: do the media really deliberately coerce and manipulate unsuspecting audiences? Habermas’s theory of an eroded public sphere is contentious and a target for criticism because in its simplistic form it appears conspiratorial and unlikely within a society with a free press and democratic institutions. However, this thesis argues that while there are certainly deliberate attempts at distorting public communications by influential actors, it is the prevailing conditions of communication that allow for such distortion. In this respect. Habermas’s theory deals with the structures and communicative networks within society and how these contribute to a depleted public sphere. In essence, the public sphere has been appropriated by autonomous organisations external to the public sphere, or the arena of common civil experience. These organisations seek legitimation by means of public acclamation attracted by manufactured publicity. However, public opinions that emerge from the public sphere and those that are formed from within private organisations, such as political parties and profit making corporations, are quite different. While there no doubt exists a spectrum of possible communicative interactions between private opinions and those that emerge from the public sphere, private organisations tend to treat the public as spectators and consumers. Like corporations who use tested marketing techniques such as opinion polling and surveys to distinguish markets, political parties and government use the same methods to sell policy or reputations in order to legitimate their power and influence over a voting public. The result is a public sphere that is targeted by of various corporate or political opinions and agendas competing for public acclamation. The disparate information being channelled through the public sphere tends to cause mistrust between a public and its political leaders. This is primarily because of a lack of consistency in the quality and veracity of information stemming from the fact that information does not often reflect or correlate with the lived experiences common to an electorate. By using news media accounts of the Australian 2004 federal election campaign, this study intends to demonstrate that Habermas’s theory of an eroded public sphere is an effective way of casting a critical eye over news media organisations and their interaction with political power and influence.

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