When we speak of the public sphere, we think of public opinion and this is borne out by Jurgen Habermas accordingly in his various books and scholarly articles. The transmission of news is essential to development of public opinion due to the fact that this opinion is constantly shaped by what is fed by the news cycle and the media networks. Habermas points out various ways how the news cycle affects public opinion and we shall analyse these in detail below.
Habermas remains an important figure with regard to the implementation of public policy and the effects of the news cycle on public opinion. In "The Public Sphere" in Mattelat an Siegelaub (ed) Communication and Class Struggle vol.1 (1979), he argues that the influence of news is crucial to the shaping of public opinion as it creates a conflict and a basis for discussion. In his text, Habermas follows on from Parsons’ ‘The Structure of Social Action’ where there is an extensive discussion on the maintaining of social order. Thus the creation of fully fledged news bulletins which pander to social restraint are important for the continuing maintenance of the status quo.
Habermas continued espousing on communication theory in his seminal book ‘Theory of Communicative Action’ (1984, 87) where there is a continuing review of the theories espoused by Parsons. However Habermas goes much further than that and introduces theories by other sociologists such as Weber, Durkheim and Mead together with TW Adorno
In ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’. Habermas continues to discuss the importance of communication strategies in the formation of public opinion. News and documentary are forms of mass communication so these remain crucial and extremely important. The way news bulletins are structured is crucial and important and Habermas argues that the way mass media transmits its message remains an important part of societal norms.
In Fraser, N. (1990) "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”, Text No. 25/26 (1990), pp. 56-80”, we have a new aspect on the way a democracy is shaped by its media. By including various political party stations in the mix, we can see and observe the manner with which these shape the mass media and what their effect on the electorate is. Public opinion is swayed considerably by what3 appears on the news and this is personified by the 2012 election campaign which saw the Democratic Party elected with a considerable majority in the United States. The way the message was transmitted through the mass media had a considerable effect on the way people voted so one could argue that the news that was fed to the networks had a massive effect on public opinion.
In Keane, J. (1991) "The Media and Democracy", Polity Press, we observe the argument that the media has an essential and highly important role in the establishment of democracy. In this argument the composition of the news bulletin is arguably crucial to the way this is understood by the public and this is borne out in Keane’s narrative. The author also focuses on certain elements in democracy which are affected by the way the media portrays certain events. This is keeping with Habermas’ study of the East German media which was a repressive state yet the news cycle always portrayed the positive elements thus creating a false sense of security amongst the population.
In Tiffen, J. (1989) "??News and Power Allen and Unwin pp.15-29 and pp.52-69 we confront the issues of power as related to news and documentary. A typical example by the author is when adulation is heaped upon a leader who is a repressive and dictatorial figure yet he is adored by the population. This is a typical case in repressive regimes such as those in North Korea and former Soviet Union countries, the adulation effect is manifested in the constant stream of biased news bulletins, news features and documentaries confirming the so called ‘glories’ of the leader. This approach shows that news is extremely powerful in the shaping of public opinion although it is of course debatable whether the effect is the result of threats or oppression instead of actual news.
In Cohen, S. & Young, J. (1984) "The Process of Selection" in The Manufacture of News: Social Problems, Deviance and Mass Media. Constable Press. Pp.15-34 a different aspect of the news cycle is tackled. The authors argue that the way news is sifted and selected could have a substantial effect on public opinion especially the way the news is shaped and how it comes across to the viewer or the reader. A typical example would be the way an event is reported, leaving out certain important details which would blacken the name of a particular public figure. This would have a devastating effect on public opinion and could lead to the fall of political figures. In other words, the mud will stick if thrown effectively.
Gans (1979) also focuses effectively on what makes the news and how this affects news producers in the sifting of their news bulletins. This topic is expanded upon by Goldin and Elliott (1979) in ‘Making the News’ where the construction of a news bulletin is shown as having a singular effect on public opinion especially through research which reveals public perception of certain news items. Galtung and Ruge (1973) take this a step further where they argue that the structuring and selecting of news bulletins is a delicate process and this has a substantial effect on public opinion. They bring as an example the busing incident in Boston which was sensationally reported and this had an effect on the city’s racial opinions. Yet again we have a reaffirmation of Habermas’ notion of the public sphere and how the news cycle does affect this opinion.
Rock (1973) also speaks about news as an eternal recurrence. The way an event is reported has an effect on the way this news item is perceived and can create a situation of surrealism. Rock also refers to several cases in the United States media which have shaped public opinion, most notably being the Vietnam War where here we can observe at close quarters what it meant to be in the public sphere. A typical case where the news influenced the public sphere would be the Watergate scandal where President Nixon was forced to resign after revelations were made that the President had given orders for the Democratic Party complex at Watergate Building in Washington to be bugged. This clear case of a breach in confidentiality.
In ‘Structuring and Making the News (1973), Galtung and Jung reaffirm the importance of a proper structure in a news bulletin if this is to bring about change in the way society perceives the news scene. A typical example would be the race beat where the civil rights question garnered considerable public appeal and sympathy when newsreel footage of human rights abuses and beatings in the Deep South were given proper coverage on TV. This demonstrates that news and documentary coverage has an intrinsic effect on public opinion.
Habermas also wrote extensively about the perception of the Holocaust and how this could be understood for cleansing of guilt. Documentaries about the concentration camps were essential to make the German people understand what the Jews went through and how the collective sense of responsibility and guilt was very important for a better understanding of the actual event.
A noteworthy news event which shows how the news can change public perception was Hurricane Katrina. With Hurricane Katrina one could observe the glaring deficiencies which existed in the US South were black people continued to suffer sub -standard housing and had difficulty to access several basic services. The rescue operation was terrifyingly incompetent and also led to the firing of several top officials who were responsible for homeland security. The hurricane’s effects were also devastating in the sense that it led to a mass exodus from certain states such as Louisiana were population displacements of several blacks led to a lessening of the Democratic leaning voters in that area. So the hurricane had a demographic effect on the United States too. Similar situations arose in Mississippi and Alabama who also suffered terribly as a result of the hurricane. Here the images of people climbing onto the top of their cars to escape the floods had a powerful effect on the public perception and the opinion of the US government.
As a conclusion, it is clear that news is crucial to the public’s perception of events according to Habermas’ notion of the public sphere.
Habermas, J (1979) "??The Public Sphere""? in Mattelat an Siegelaub (ed) Communication and Class Struggle vol.1 Habermas, J (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. MIT Press. Fraser, N. (1990) "??Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy""? Text No. 25/26 (1990), pp. 56-"""80 Keane, J. (1991) "??The Media and Democracy"?? , Polity Press Tiffen, J. (1989) "??News and Power Allen and Unwin pp.15-"""29 and pp.52-"""69 Cohen, S. & Young, J. (1984) "??The Process of Selection""? in The Manufacture of News: Social Problems, Deviance and Mass Media. Constable Press. Pp.15-"""34
Jane Braaten, Habermas's Critical Theory of Society, State University of New York Press, 1991. ISBN 0-7914-0759-4
Andreas Dorschel: 'Handlungstypen und Kriterien. Zu Habermas' Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns', in: Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 44 (1990), nr. 2, pp. 220-252. A critical discussion of types of action in Habermas. In German.
Erik Oddvar Eriksen and Jarle Weigard, Understanding Habermas: Communicative Action and Deliberative Democracy, Continuum International Publishing, 2004 (ISBN 082647179X).
Detlef Horster. Habermas: An Introduction. Pennbridge, 1992 (ISBN 1-880055-01-5)
Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas (Chapter 9), University of California Press, 1986. (ISBN 0-520-05742-2)
Ernst Piper (editor) "Historikerstreit": Die Dokumentation der Kontroverse um die Einzigartigkeit der nationalsozialistschen Judenvernichtung, Munich: Piper, 1987 translated into English by James Knowlton and Truett Cates as Forever In The Shadow Of Hitler? : Original Documents Of the Historikerstreit, The Controversy Concerning The Singularity Of The Holocaust, Atlantic Highlands, N.J. : Humanities Press, 1993, (ISBN 0391037846) Contains Habermas's essays from the Historikerstreit and the reactions of various scholars to his statements.
Edgar, Andrew. The Philosophy of Habermas. Мontreal, McGill-Queen's UP, 2005.
Adams, Nicholas. Habermas & Theology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006.