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Communicating with citizens?
Representations of public opinion
in Polish public discourse
ABSTRACT: While political scientists and communication scholars have long been interested in the relationship between democracy, media and public opinion, still too little attention has been focused on how these concepts and institutions are perceived by diff erent actors functioning in the public sphere. Th
is paper argues that the kind of idea of public opinion persists in society depends on the
model of democracy adopted by various public actors, the historical context of the idea and the agen-das measuring public opinion. Based on in-depth (n
= 32) and focused group (n
= 36) interviews this study shows that the way people look at diff erent theoretical concepts depends not only on their dif-ferent representations but also on the roles they play in the public sphere. Representations of public opinion expressed by lay people, politicians and journalists seem to be mutually exclusive. Th
explores the way Polish democracy persists despite these controversies.
KEYWORDS: public opinion, democracy, media, representations
e main problem of this article is the “public opinion” category, which is anchored
fi rmly in contemporary political and media discourse, experts’ and — last but not least — in common discourse. Th
e popularity of this concept results from the key
role it plays in democratic theory and practice. Th
people”) requires “the people” to take part in political discussion and decision-mak-ing. For this reason “public opinion” is highly valued by actors playing in the public sphere — politicians, journalists, intellectuals and lay people.
Simultaneously this concept is contingent on a number of factors including so-
cial mood, communication environment and the way this entity is framed in the minds of diff erent citizens. Th
e central argument here is that images of public opin-
ion are combined with the publics’ visions of democracy, media, the public sphere and the role politicians, journalists and lay people should play in the social and
CENTRAL EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 2 (2011) ISSN 1899-5101
erefore this study is aimed at answering two primary questions:
(1) How do various public actors conceptualize public opinion? and (2) How do they perceive the policymaking process and the role public opinion plays in it?
Reviewing the vast literature on the role of public opinion in the public sphere,
we can fi nd a growing body of research on how public actors defi ne “public opinion” in the United States (Herbst, 2002, 1998, 1993b; Kohut, 1998; Powlick, 1995). Simi-lar in nature, “pictures of public opinion” in the heads of governmental-system ac-tors and in media discourse, were also collected in Germany by Dieter Fuchs and Barbara Pfetsch (1996), Christiane Eilders, Neidhardt Friedhelm and Barbara Pfetsch (2004). Besides, there are many other important studies concerning polls and their importance in the contemporary “mediated democratic system” (Ginsberg 1986, 1989; Herbst, 1993a; Converse, 1996; Manza, Cook, 2002). Along this trend Justin Lewis, presented an interesting analysis of the signifi cance of opinion polls considering polls as a signifi cant form of “representation” in contemporary culture (2001).
In this article I would like to pose questions regarding Polish reality: what is the
meaning and importance of “public opinion” in Polish public life? Is it only a phrase of little worthwhile application or is it central to public life, its essential element? Th
ese are the questions this article is intending to address while considering the
problem of the sense of “public opinion” in democracy from politicians, journalists and lay people’s perspective.
Despite numerous controv ersies on the position public opinion occupies in the
process of wielding power in democratic states, and ongoing debates on the mean-ing of public opinion in diff erent disciplines, questions on the shape of images of public opinion, representations that persist in minds of politicians, journalists and citizens remain understudied. Th
ey are crucial for political life, because they show
us how the feedback loop between government and the electorate works, and how parliamentary offi
cials are held accountable to their constituents. Th
of a journalist’s visions of public opinion lies in the fact that journalism is funda-mentally about speech — the fl ow of conversation that is made between diff erent actors playing in the public sphere. In this sense journalists are the gatekeepers of media debates. Th
eir representations tell us who are the actors admitted to those
debates and what is communication for. We will get the answer what positions are occupied in media debates by columnists, state offi
citizens’ conceptualizations of public opinion are of great importance because they enable the people to defi ne their roles in the political realm.
pate people might play in the political system. Th
models of democracy we consciously or unconsciously adapt when thinking about public opinion. Th
erefore we learn the assumption put forward by Herbst that the
way we comprehend public opinion “is rooted in and derived from our choice of ideal-typical democratic model” (1998, p. 16). Th
260 CENTRAL EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 2 (2011)
of democracy carry diff erent normative expectations on politicians, journalists and citizens. In order to clarify representations of public opinion in the public sphere it is necessary to specify which model of democracy is involved when making connec-tions between public opinion, the political decision-making process and the media.
MODELS OF DEMOCRACY AND PUBLIC OPINION
ere is no “one democracy”. As Robert A. Dahl puts it in Democracy and Its Critics
there is a mixture of theories and practices that are oft en deeply inconsistent (1989, p. 2). Th
erefore instead of saying “there is democracy” we talk about a plethora of
variants of democracy that are built “to exhibit and explain the real relations, un-derlying the appearances, between or within the phenomena under study […] to explain the probability or possibility of future changes […] with a concern for what is desirable or good or right” (Macpherson, 1977, p. 2–4). Over the last three decades there is a consensus in a growing number of articles and books over diff er-ent types of democracy (cf. Macpherson, 1977; Dahrendorf, 1980; Pateman, 1985; Held, 1996; Manin, 1997). Various models diff er in the main elements of a demo-cratic form and their underlying structure of relations. Th
of democracy are: (1) liberal, (2) elitist and (3) participatory/deliberative.
Obviously they diff er in some ways, fi rstly in framing politics and the way com-
mon will emerges. Although all models emphasize the importance of citizens in politics, they address to them diff erent expectations including respecting democratic procedures, having a basic knowledge of the decision-making processes or ability for a considerable engagement in public aff airs. Simultaneously they agree that the most basic role of citizens is to hold leaders accountable for what they have done or intend to do. Th
ey also diff er considering the public sphere — it is a space free from the
whims of the marketplace, fostering collective self-determination or free from the de-mands of the state being the catalyst of individual self-determination. Th
of democracy also entail some implications for media and journalism: they at least provide some basic information about how society and political processes work or foster public discussions characterized by equality, rationality and objectivity.
What is most important, is that liberal, elitist and participatory models of de-
mocracy diff er in their assumptions about the nature and the role of public opinion in a democratic state. All of them admit that the people’s own voice about its prefer-ences and beliefs should play some role in organizing and/or supervising the gov-ernmental processes. On the other hand some legislators, politicians and scholars consider the problem of responsiveness of public offi
uninformed public opinion. If there is a problem of public’s low level of political knowledge, this diminishes the quality of political decisions and in turn undercuts democracy. Irrationality of public opinion makes real the threat of “mob rule”, and means political decisions that are based on shallow, indecisive and illogical premis-es. At best — in this elitist vision — public opinion mirrors projections of what
CENTRAL EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 2 (2011)
journalists, politicians and other “elites” believe, at worst it refl ects citizens’ ignorant opinions. A more optimistic version of competitive elitism is when we admit that even though ordinary citizens are badly informed and incompetent, they may still infl uence governmental offi
cials and political representatives by interest group pres-
sure who actually represent not only their own but also opinions of the public (Blumer, 1948; Davidson & Oleszek, 1998). In the liberal model, public opinion is a product of aggregation of many individual opinions or opinions and beliefs of the majority of citizens. Th
erefore public opinion polls turns out to be good indicators
of what people want from government and their results are frequently stable, coher-ently organized, taking into account the best available information and reasonable (Converse, 1990; Page & Shapiro, 1992). According to the third model, public opin-ion may be understood as being formed by rational deliberation over the issues of general interest. Th
e public sphere provides this kind of ideal situation in which
public opinion is shaped by rational deliberation of the public good and democracy is driven by public opinion (Habermas, 1993).
Game played by the people’s Spectacle organized
Emerges through the Emerges through reasoning
unable to self-govern, active, rational, tolerant,
procedures, able to monitor between candidates,
Public Opinion Aggregation of individual
Media function Provider of information that Watchdog that
between individuals, public opinion of elites
262 CENTRAL EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 2 (2011)
RESEARCHING REPRESENTATIONS OF PUBLIC OPINION
Public opinion in this article is understood as a concept whose meaning refl ects working models of democracy that circulate in public discourse, intersect and crys-tallize continuously through conversations, words, gestures, everyday meetings and the media.
In order to examine representations of public opinions which are routinely ex-
pressed by diff erent members of the public in their discourse with others, individ-ual in-depth interviews were conducted.1 Two classes of rather busy and tough re-spondents were questioned: Polish parliamentary deputies (n
= 15) and top journalists of leading Polish newspapers (n
= 17) discussing the political domain. Polish MP’s cover a wide political and ideological spectrum, from the far left (Dem-ocratic Left Alliance — SLD; Self-Defence), centrists and moderates (Civic Plat-form — PO) to libertarians, right conservatives, and Christian activists (Law and Justice — PiS; League of Polish Families — LPR). Th
consists of editor-in-chiefs and columnists of the three opinion-forming newspa-pers Dziennik
(RP) and Gazeta Wyborcza
(GW), representing the more conservative (GW and DZ) or libertarian wing (GW) of the daily press. Moreover interviews were conducted with weekly magazine journalists, radio and television editors. It turned out that the size of the population had resulted in “the-oretical saturation” of the data. Th
is simply means that (within the limits of available
time and money) “the researcher fi nds that no new data is being unearthed” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998; p. 292).
Focused groups were chosen for researching lay people’s representations of pub-
lic opinion.2 Group interviews are oft en more appropriate for studying the phenom-enon of social representations (Farr, 1993; Livingstone & Lunt, 1996) when it is possible to draw together diff erent publics. Four focus groups (n
= 38) were held with diff erent types of “lay members” of society. Th
e second was held in Zamość (a city in the
eastern/central part of Poland with a population of 66,000), and comprised members of the Polish working class. Focused interviews with the last two groups were held in Lublin and were made up of students and members of the better-educated public, working bureaucracy and freelance jobs.
e diversity of informants was important for this study since the goal was to col-
lect and understand as many representations as possible. Since the sample is purpo-
1 Interviews lasted from 25 minutes to 120 minutes (depending on respondents) but most took
about 40 minutes. All of them were conducted by the author during January to July of 2007. Tape-recorded discourses were later transcribed.
2 FGI sessions were conducted with “lay people” who represented divergent backgrounds. Each
session lasted from 90 to 120 minutes. All of them were conducted by the author during April to July of 2007. Participants were free in expressing their opinions, and the fl ow of conversation was smooth. All interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed.
CENTRAL EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 2 (2011)
sive and not random, it is impossible to generalize information for the whole popu-lation. But that was not the case. Th
e aim was to make typifi cations on how diff erent
respondents “grasp” public opinion.
Interviews with Parliamentary Deputies were conducted either in MP’s offi
or in the Polish Parliament; with journalists in their homes, restaurants or offi
and with lay people in Focus Group Studios. Th
approximately 45 minutes, although a few were longer or shorter. Although the same protocol was used for each interview, informants were encouraged to speak freely about any aspect of the topic at hand. In some interviews, respondents spoke extensively in answer to the fi rst questions, so subsequent questions were elimi-nated or modifi ed because they were irrelevant or redundant. Among other things informants were asked about: (1) how they defi ned and thought about “public opin-ion”; (2) who is “public opinion”; (3) what did they think about public opinion polls, (4) how they understood the role “public opinion” plays in the democratic system, and (5) what is the relationship between media, public opinion and government and politicians.
e central question directed to diff erent participants of the public sphere was,
“What does the phrase “public opinion” mean for you?” By putting this kind of general question I usually did not get any specifi c answer. It was too abstract and intangible for informants to give details on the phenomenon of “public opinion”. Th
erefore the additional question “What is this phrase related with?” was helpful
to “immerse” into the world of politics and media where public opinion is one of the important components.
POLITICS AND PUBLIC OPINION
e general attitude and readiness for building sophisticated concepts of public
opinion depends on the informant’s social category/group affi
ing lay people’s representation of public opinion, it seems that those less educated3, representing farmers and physical workers, admit to simpler theories than others. Th
ey defi ne public opinion as “we” or society.
RS: “We” means who?L[abour]M[an]1: Public opinion. Yes — we altogether.
LM4: Yes. Society.
LW[oman]2: Society in its entirety.
e level of formal education was measured by asking informants about the last grade or class
264 CENTRAL EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 2 (2011)
F[armer]M[an]3: Public opinion? Perhaps it is the whole nation, isn’t it?FW1: Yes. We are![laughs] …FM11: Th
ose who are interested, and in our society usually everybody is. I mean everybody is
more or less interested in. Rather everybody.
is is the simplest but also the most accessible and acceptable representation of
public opinion for the people. At the same time it is limited to individuals them-selves, limited by time and space to the here and now. When talking about public opinion though, we should consider all of them, their opinions, beliefs and values.
No informant in the above mentioned two focused groups spontaneously pro-
vided any other theoretical association. However, students and bureaucrats provide more refi ned “theorizing”. Th
eir considerations take into account the abstract notion
of the term, its usefulness or uselessness and the problem of representativeness of public opinion.
B[ureaucrat]W[oman]2: [Public opinion — RS] perhaps it means the opinion of every citi-
BM3: It’s not though. Because someone says “public opinion considers something”, and I listen
to it and simply know that me and my circle of friends do not think like that.
BW3: Exactly! And where is this opinion from?BM3: So quoting public opinion is a kind of manipulation, because they can say everything,
that public opinion considers this or that.
[noise]BM3: And someone listens and says: oh sugar! — they think like that!BW2: Yes. But it probably depends on where this research was done. Doesn’t it?BM4: Ten people.
BW2: What percent? Exactly!BW1: But these surveys should have been somehow representative if they quote them.
[voices of impatience and having doubts about representativeness]
Not being researchers, laymen tried to establish a hare-brained defi nition of the
sample that might represent “public opinion”. It is therefore still the reference point for informants, the concept of society and its “representatives” who express their beliefs and opinions in the name of the whole public, nation or society.
When asked about the best way to measure public opinion, informants pointed
primarily, though unwillingly, at public opinion polls. Simultaneously they ex-pressed numerous reservations about them.
LM3: No, they aren’t.
LM4: Phone polls are done let’s say, on 100 or more people randomly selected, aren’t they?
Everything depends on who, for example, commissioned them. Which party commissions polls…
CENTRAL EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 2 (2011)
Lay people try to understand the logic of opinion polls appealing to their own
erefore, shortcomings enlisted by them are oft en missed. Not being
grounded on their experience or ideas of how the sample is taken and analyzed, they have built the image of something that is “out of reach, out of sight” and grad-ually form themselves “a trustworthy picture inside their heads of the world beyond their reach” (Lippmann, 1997, p. 18). Th
is is a natural process when someone suff ers
a knowledge defi cit. And it has turned out that knowledge of polling methodology within informants was weak at best. Th
us, results are similar to those attained by the
American Council for Marketing and Opinion Research, where the majority of the public did not understand how a randomly selected sample of 1500–2000 people could refl ect the opinion of the US population (O’Neil, 1996).
is distrust toward polls characterizes not only lay people but also politicians
and journalists. However, when lay people make a connection between public opin-ion with the “people” themselves, politicians link public opinion with the aggregate of individual opinions picked in nationally representative polls and opinions ex-pressed by the electorate. Th
erefore, for politicians to speak about public opinion
means to speak about polls’ reports and opinions of the electorate.
ere is no collective being like public opinion. Th
particular opinions… Here is the question for example, what do polls measure… Th
ere is something like the public mood…
MP14: We can say public opinion… as general public opinion… And certainly the general
refl ection of public opinion attitude are results of the polls on political preferences. It is obvious.
Bearing in mind politicians’ objections to polls, they stress the importance of
direct meetings with “the people” equated with “electorate”.
MP3: [Public opinion — RS] is a kind of “social hearing”. Th
the electorate, with the people, kind of understanding, to know what’s what… It is hard to defi ne, because, you know, it can be sometimes an opinion heard at an offi
Journalists’ representations of public opinion diff er substantially from those pro-
vided by lay people and politicians. For them public opinion is a meaningless con-cept, a catchphrase of little value, something used and abused by columnists and politicians. When asking informants about the image of public opinion, they usu-ally mention media audience, passive listeners or viewers infl uenced by the media and politicians. Much more rarely do they refer to the people, society or public opinion polls.
J4: But I don’t use the term public opinion at all! I don’t like terms like this, [because — RS]
what do they mean? It seems to me, that usually this is a rhetorical fi gure, because people are heterogeneous and they expect diff erent things… so I am not able to give you an answer [what public opinion means — RS], because I do not use this phrase…
266 CENTRAL EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 2 (2011)
J2: Public opinion is a segment of media consumers… Television is watched everyday by doz-
erefore there is a consumer’s market comprising lots of Poles,
but we cannot say this is public opinion. Public opinion is a small part of this market, which con-sciously participates in it… Needless to say that the majority of these consumers are passive…
What is the role public opinion plays in politics, and especially in the political
decision-making process? It is supposed in a democracy that public opinion infl u-ences decisions made by their parliamentary representatives. According to the par-ticipatory model of democracy, individuals comply with the rational-activist mod-el of the citizenry. Th
ey are involved, informed, rational and active in building
enlightened views about the issues and policy positions of the candidates. Th
ists model considerably reduces the political demands placed on citizens: they are to be able to select from among diff erent political platforms, and in the liberal mod-el of democracy, “the people” govern through their delegates, who — once elected — must care for and anticipate voter preferences in advance of the next election (Erikson & Tedin 2007; p. 18–21).
Lay people’s vision in this respect is clear and manifested unanimously by all “lay
rmative answers for the question about “public offi
responsiveness to public opinion” varied only in the range and scope of the deci-sion’s context.
FW2: MP’s should listen raptly to the voice of public opinionFM5: Of course.
[voices of support]FM5: Th
FM3 : But they’re chosen by the people!FM11: Th
e voice of public opinion should be the most important ‘cause it is…
FW2: We have elected them, we decided them to…FW1: …govern the country. And it should be like what we want, not them.
When lay people refer to politics they mean the pursuit of power or partisan
e purpose of political competition — according to informants — is
ce which is an end in itself. To achieve it they are to use any means to de-
feat their rivals and bring them to power. Th
erein politics is a kind of game, an oft en
unfair one, in which cunning, shrewdness and resourcefulness are rewarded, in which all sorts of tricks are permissible and rules are changed by the players to suit themselves. Th
e main actors of this game are competing elites playing with the na-
S[tudent]M[ale]1: When politicians are not able to reach their political goals with the use of
SM2: Truthfulness is not a virtue during campaigns. Nowadays politicians do not say anything
that would be internally motivated. Instead they have a team of advisors, pundits, social engineers etc., who have the knowledge and methods intended to… yyy… to produce an eff ect. Th
is not a lie. It is application of a kind of technique, a social mechanism…
CENTRAL EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 2 (2011)
Politics is a spectacle for informants. As witnessed by parts of the public, it
evokes their emotional reactions, building an unintelligible world which is partly as it really is, but mostly as they imagine it to be. Some of the members of the public see just sporting competition, political rivalry, and others, a sham compe-tition-like show. Regardless, as Edelman has pointed out (1985), we must not forget that politics as a ‘spectacular’ requires a stage on which to be performed. Th
is means media, and — in consequence — the mediatization of politics. Th
causes — as some say — the deprecation of politics and disappointment of the public. Informants see this “facade politics” in which political elites determine real policy behind democratic institutions and in front of television cameras. So, they have already grown jaded. As one factory worker in his 40s, said: “I know they are pursuing their aims. And I know when the others come to power, they will do the same. Th
ey dig up some dirt [on their political enemies — RS]. Th
point is to distract people’s attention from real problems. To give the people cir-cuses, isn’t it like that?” (LM4).
Here we have a discrepancy between people’s expectations and political ac-
tions. Politics for people is about how to solve public problems, about a politi-cian’s response to demands expressed by public opinion while for politicians it is about winning elections and votes. For politicians, politics is only an instrument for making gains and winning power, it is about pursuing parties’ ideals which coincide with people ones. Th
at’s why citizens’ participation in politics is not ex-
In the majority, politicians express belief that public opinion is too ignorant,
irrational and prone to persuasion to rule itself. Ruling by representatives is the best way for democracy to operate, because it demands from its citizens enlight-ened understanding and eff ective participation (Dahl, 1989; p. 37–38). Even if informants are optimistic about public opinion’s abilities to make reasonable de-cisions when it comes to the most publicized elections, they are less so when it comes to other decisions. Th
ese kinds of reservations are expressed by Russell J.
Dalton. “In such second- and third-order elections, the means of information that voters can use in fi rst-order elections may be insuffi
ing. So the expansion of the electoral marketplace may empower the public in a sense, but in another sense may make it hard for voters to exercise meaningful political judgment” (Dalton, 2004, p. 132).
For journalists, public opinion does not exist. Th
ers, who consist of citizens who are rather uninformed, disengaged, volatile and changeable. At the same time, journalists are convinced they have knowledge about or a sense of the public sentiment that emerge from their day-to-day con-versations with the media audience. Th
erefore politicians shouldn’t follow public
opinion and should rather stick to their political platforms. One of the most ex-perienced journalists, said:
268 CENTRAL EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 2 (2011)
J4: I think referendums shouldn’t be used in general and they shouldn’t be a substitute for parlia-mentary democracy. It is improper to appeal to the public’s knowledge while they do not or can-not have it.
MEDIA AND PUBLIC OPINION
It would be improper not to bear in mind the media’s role in the formation of rep-resentations of public opinion in public discourse. It is claimed that the media contributes to political cynicism, civic malaise, framing politics, molding of public opinion and infl uencing political parties to adapt the media logic in order to gain visibility and electoral success and damaging the public sphere by establishing entertainment-driven and celebrity-oriented space.
A general and total critique of the media is commonplace within scientifi c dis-
course. Some scholars are convinced that the media hinders eff ective communica-tion, unduly infl uencing the public. Others describing the role the media plays in democracy, point at a positive metaphor of a “marketplace of ideas”. Bringing three basic functions of communication for societies: surveillance (the media acts as a watchdog), transmission (the media facilitates idea exchange and debate) and cor-relation (the media acts as the voice of the people), the last one would be here the most important (Lasswell, 1948; Curran, 2000). But according to Edward S. Her-man and Noam Chomsky the reality is quite the opposite. Th
“marketplace of ideas” but rather “a marketplace of commerce” not interested in examining problems and issues. “Th
e audience “interaction” facilitated by advanc-
ing interactive capabilities mainly help audience members to shop, but they also allow media fi rms to collect detailed information on their audiences, and thus to fi ne-tune program features and ads to individual characteristics as well as to sell by a click during programs. Along with reducing privacy, this should intensify commercialization” (1988, p. xvii).
is approach devolves into a theory in which public opinion is seen to be fed
and manipulated by the media. Do informants share this perspective?
For lay people, journalists together with politicians are at quarters. Paradoxi-
cally at the same time, they cooperate simply because it is in their best economic interest. Simultaneously both try to infl uence the public which is not sovereign: the owners, politicians and ads offi
cers decide what is to be off ered, and the only
thing the public can do is to choose among options.
SW1: Nowadays, the media is said to be called the fourth estate, but I think it is actually the
is is because the media can infl uence not only public opinion but political behavior as well.
It depends on who works in the media. But actually media content does not depend on particular journalists but upon the owners. Owners decide upon what will be published…
…FM4: I think politicians fl y at their throats only when they appear in the television.
FM3: Of course…
CENTRAL EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 2 (2011)
[informants nod in assent]FM4: It is for purpose, that apparently they do not agree…FM3: Th
ese are workmates… And the media shows it…
e media is seen by informants as not quite the independent agent acting in the
public sphere but rather as the arm of a force of ruling elites. Informants realize they are in turn considered as passive consumers of media content. Yet they still stay inactive, due to a sense of helplessness.
For politicians, media and journalists fulfi ll two key functions: they are a source
of information and the means of publicity and control. Th
rates on issues but fi rstly brings them to attention. Journalists are gatekeepers when politicians try to gain public attention. But they can also be used as a pillory locating the issue in the agenda. Th
ey decide and select “what the public must attend to …
what is urgent, which questions must be concerned with” and which behavior is “stigmatized or condoned” (Noelle-Neumann, 1984, p. 154–158).
e media is sometimes the source of important information for politicians. Th
journalists can even infl uence them. But there is another leverage of journalists on politicians. I mean pillorying them: sometimes crudely, by extortion, by digging up some — this happens. And I must admit, many politicians surrender to this pillory.
According to politicians, public opinion is susceptible to persuasion, dependent
on the media in a sense of providing the public with information and entertaining it.
e mass media has enormous power today. Of course there is a direct and powerful
feedback between the media and public opinion. Both public opinion and the media are linked to-gether. But to a large extent, I guess, the media infl uences public opinion — not the other way round.
e media focuses on sensationalized stories and produces a “feeding frenzy”
(Sabato, 1991) at the same time activating cynicism about politics, government and public policy. Th
is way, instead of improving citizens’ knowledge, the media dis-
tracts them from what is important. As William A. Hatchen complains, “public af-fairs journalism, in particular, has been trivialized and corrupted by a mélange of entertainment, sensationalism, celebrity-watching, and merchandising driven by advertising, PR, and corporate profi ts” (Hatchen, 1998).
e media’s fi eld of interest is limited. It is not interested in legislation processes but
only in those elements which may evoke social emotions, which are attractive. Media and journal-ists do not care about the relevance of the issue, the signifi cance of the legislation. Th
proceeded legislation that is fundamental to the state with “zero interest” of journalists, because they don’t recognize it as contributing to the increase of the size of the edition of their newspaper. Th
erefore, there are no journalists in the gallery and nobody interests in the legislation process in
spite of the fact that this regulation is crucial for the state.
In this context it is understandable that journalist informants do not see the
media as a debating forum that facilitates informed deliberation about the major
270 CENTRAL EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 2 (2011)
issues and this way, mediating between citizens and the state. Citizens are prima-rily consumers, not participants of public debate. As a 40-year-old news editor said:
e people need debates. But where is the diff erence between the debate held by journalists and
those organized by politicians or pundits. It is more clear, coherent. Th
are taught how to provide intelligible information in a clear way about something provided by pol-iticians and experts in a roundabout way.
cient and frugal at the same time: they or-
ganize debates between themselves, avoiding the necessity of translation of what is intricate, into information that is simple and accessible.
CONCLUSIONS: THE POLITICAL REALITY OF REPRESENTATIONS
Reconstruction of representations of public opinion in public discourse allows us to better understand the world in which public opinion, politics and mass media of communications interpenetrate.
In this study the axis of diff erent meanings of public opinion begins in three
normative theories of democracy and their demands upon citizens, journalists and politicians. It was assumed that informants’ representations revealed in public dis-course allow us to discover their unconsciously acknowledged “working models of democracy” and the degree to which these representations are in keeping with these models.
Even if groups interviewed do not allow us to generalize research outcomes
to whole populations, they let us build commonsensical representations of the so-cial and political reality of democratic countries. Anyway, it turned out that quite quickly informers did not provide new categories or their properties. Th
while attaining similar instances over and over again, I became empirically confi -dent that categories analyzed were saturated (Strauss, Corbin, 1998). Results achieved increased our understanding of how actors playing in the public sphere — politicians, journalists and lay people perceive each other and why.
For lay people, politics and governing is about building a political spectacle
performed in order to gain power. Although the electorate realizes that this is some kind of game, they do not feel absolved of emotional engagement in this rivalry. Politicians share with them this feeling but this does not prevent them from per-forming the roles they were ascribed to. At the same time politicians are convinced that they “keep a hand on the pulse of public opinion” by public meetings and polls. Journalists are disappointed observers of this game carried on between political elites and citizens. Instead of public opinion they prefer to talk about media con-sumers and diff erent audiences. Th
ey listen to them, read their letters, talk with
them and “a conversation with a taxi driver” epitomizes an opinion of an average citizen. Th
ey do not trust polls that at best can show how ill-informed, uninter-
CENTRAL EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 2 (2011)
ested and stupefi ed is public opinion. Consequently the general public is very un-likely to articulate rational opinions or demands and evaluate their political repre-sentatives with respect to public policy. Journalists are to represent citizens in a sense that “they are capable of placing questions or to undertake a problem that the public is unable to cope with, if only because they do not have access to it” (J4).
How do these commonsensical representations held by citizens, politicians and
journalists match up with diff erent democratic theories? When trying to determine group representations to previously determined normative models of democracy, all of them seem to fi t to diff erent categories: politicians to the liberal model of democracy, journalists to the elitist one and average citizens fi t the participatory model. While the liberal and elitist models are close together in dismissing public opinion or citizens from their duties toward the state, the participatory model re-sults in considerable expectations with reference to public opinion. But lay inform-ants even if unengaged, disinterested, with aff ective thinking, were not willing to renounce their right to have a right for participation in the decision-making process.
Here the results of this study coincide with those done by Susan Herbst (1998).
In her research of diff erent meanings of public opinion in groups of staff ers, jour-nalists and citizen activists, it turned out that social position determines the per-spective they choose. Occupation was a “window that people look out of at the political landscape” so “It makes no sense to ask what individuals think of politics unless we know where they stand” (162). Diff erent views of public opinion, she revealed, were not only discordant but they confl ict each other.
Similarly, informants in this study presented opposing representations of public
opinion. But despite fundamental diff erences between mutual expectations and real-life activities of diff erent segments of Polish society, democracy has not been engendered throughout the last 20 years. Th
ere has become apparent a shared belief
that democracy is the aim of itself. Even if its components do not comply with sys-temic premises, the system has endured, since some elements may always be im-proved.
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