Re-examining The Public Sphere

A brief consideration

Recent attention to fake news, social media hacking and data privacy invites a re-examination of the “public sphere,” an idea studied by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas to describe the virtual space in which individuals and authorities can discuss matters of “public” interest.

His described an exchange of ideas made possible first through general literacy and later through an expansion of “mass media,” fuelled by the business community’s need for accurate news and the growing requirements of democracy.  His 1962 work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was foundational in establishing serious academic study of media and journalism, and he anticipated the blurring distinctions between public and private life.

As elegantly and comprehensively as the concept serves to describe the complexity of “public opinion” and the interdependence of changing social, legal, political and cultural institutions (and their output), it’s rarely mentioned today by those of us paid to help navigate it.

I suspect this has to do with his ambivalence toward the commercialization of the sphere (he wasn’t wrong) and the powerful influence of marketing as a primary force in shaping public life. Many advisors prefer “communications” over “public relations,” partly I think out of a desire to move beyond old-fashioned descriptions and partly to escape the taint of those who’ve worked manipulate opinion through spin, obfuscation or outright lying.

There is also the atomizing effects of personal technology. As we create our own personal universes through our mobile devices, is there such a thing as a public sphere?  Hasn’t it been supplanted by billions of individual bubbles?

My opinion: the sphere has been transformed again.  First it encircled a few privileged property owners; later, vast new classes of participants. Now it envelops, or will soon, just about everyone with access to power and a signal.  The impact(s) will be enormous.

Worth further study, in my opinion, and another look at the Public Sphere, 3.0.

30 Things To Know About The News

F99E6DF3-FB27-4461-B566-8EFB9AEC7C6ECollecting ideas for posts to help people better understand, use and share “the news” responsibly…

Some starters:

  • What makes a story newsworthy?
  • Who gets quoted, and why / how?
  • What makes someone an expert?
  • What’s the difference between news and opinion?
  • How does advertising interact with news?
  • What is a credible source?
  • What are the rules for attribution?
  • What does “off the record” mean?
  • What is “background”?
  • How do statistics and surveys impact the news?
  • Who or what sets the agenda for news providers?
  • How does the news affect opinion?
  • Why are some products reviewed and others ignored?
  • What makes a scientific study newsworthy?
  • How is risk communicated in the news?
  • Who is qualified to report news?
  • What makes a “healthy” news diet?
  • How does social media affect the news and what we see?
  • How is news content paid for?
  • What is an influencer?
  • Why do we seek news?
  • How do our opinions affect our choice of news?
  • What kinds of news formats are mostly likely to change or reinforce our opinions?
  • What are the rules regarding slanderous or libellous news?
  • What is fake news?
  • How is the news checked for accuracy?
  • What rules govern health or medical news?
  • What must companies disclose and when about their financial performance?
  • What information must governments provide?
  • What is investigative news?

What else?

Fake News And Larger Truths

Almost exactly two years ago I was having coffee in Soho with a friend who happens to be a news presenter for a global media outlet (have not asked permission to mention names here…).  We pondered among other things the emergence of what seemed to be a sudden epidemic of false, misleading or otherwise uncorroborated information, widely spread around the world as “fact” on social media platforms and sometimes even reported as such by established titles and journalists.

We were discussing fake news, of course. Strange that it didn’t really didn’t even have a name then.  A quick Google search now shows around 691,000,000 references, and an entire taxonomy has arisen around it, a complex ecosystem of memes, bots, trolls, conspirators and conspiracy theorists, all dedicated to muddying the communal well – some for a laugh, some to be difficult, and some for more sinister purposes.

Or maybe the fake news system had always been there, waiting to be discovered and labelled. In any case, it’s hard to argue that an environment featuring global connectivity, political uncertainty and more than a few bad actors has enabled fake news to a pose a threat unimaginable just a few years ago.

There were, we thought back in Soho, three general kinds of fake news: complete fiction dressed up to sound real; actual news distorted or misrepresented to paint favourable or disparaging pictures; and real news rejected as “fake” by those who simply don’t like it.

All three are dangerous for democracy and commerce, but there seemed to be a single shield that could be used to fend each of them off: improving media literacy. If people could be taught to check sources, understand attribution, question hyperbole and exercise a little common sense, we thought, the graver risks of fake news could be mitigated, and we brainstormed a few projects – books, podcasts or a documentary.

None of our ideas got off the ground, but fortunately many others picked up the gauntlet and now dozens if not hundreds of initiatives are underway to educate consumers, shut down dubious sources and try to hold platforms accountable.

I truly hope they work.  But I am beginning to think that fake news exploits the dark side of a more fundamental human trait: the desire to believe in a larger “truth.” On a personal level, we are all willing to overlook contradicting facts and accept falsehoods that back up the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and relationships with others.

This self-hypnosis goes well beyond politics; we cherry-pick evidence to substantiate the way we see ourselves and our beliefs, and ignore the rest, a tendency known as confirmation bias.

Fake news takes this much further, and wider.  Confirmation bias at scale, across a large group of like-minded believers, is readily weaponised by those in power willing to manipulate opinion with fiction, misrepresented facts and reject of the truth.  A fascinating paper by Ezra Zuckerman Sivan and others at MIT shows that when offered a “greater good” or common cause, people will not only accept obvious lies from a leader they believe will deliver that shared, larger goal, they will be complicit in spreading them.  Eventually, the “truth” becomes immaterial.

This was dangerous enough in the 1930s, when mass audiences were harder to find and connect.  Radio broadcasts, massive rallies and news images had their limitations, but were horrifically potent means of spreading lies in pursuit of causes that were neither great nor true, but widely pursued. Today’s manipulators have no such limitations, and it’s not impossible to see fake news becoming a tool to do far worse things than interfere with an election or referendum.

Improving media literacy, certifying the reliability of information, scrutinising sources – all of this can’t hurt blunt the impact of fake news but there’s a far larger task at hand.

The power of “the news”

Somewhere in an old family photo album is a Polaroid print of me, aged two or three, toddling around my grandfather’s newsroom in Seminole County, Oklahoma. I don’t remember precisely when it was taken, but I’m sure I was happy. It was a fun place to be, with a huge noisy mechanical press, cutting boards with hot wax guns (strictly forbidden) and a photographic dark room.

My grandfather was owner, publisher and editor-in-chief of three weekly newspapers, all produced in what he called “the shop.”  My grandmother set the type, sold ads and answered the phone.  Two uncles roved as reporters, laid out pages, shot and developed film, and made deliveries.  It smelled of newsprint, ink and Dr. Pepper.

A few years after that photo was taken, my family made a regular summer visit from our home in Texas, reported by my grandfather in a short article on page four or five of his flagship publication, the Konawa Leader: “Gallagher Family Visits Area.” He referenced our main activities – swimming, eating ice cream and, I think, attending a rodeo.

And he mentioned my siblings and me by name.

Our names. I hadn’t be able to read for long, but this was astounding.  In the newspaper.  I’ve been mentioned in a few others since then, but so far the thrill of that moment is unmatched.

I asked him who decides what goes in the paper and what does not; even then, it occurred me that there were other things happening in the area that had not been featured in that week’s news.  We had a firecracker battle with our cousins, for example, which was pointedly omitted.

“I do,” he said.  “I’m the editor.”

Holy smoke.  The editor decides.

From that instant I can trace a lifelong interest in “the news” – how it’s made, how it’s influenced and how it affects just about every aspect of our lives.  I went on to study journalism at the University of Texas and then, as some of my professors would say, to pervert it as a public relations consultant in Washington, DC and London.  It’s all still fascinating to me.

It’s also the origin of this blog, where I’d like to share observations, ask questions and informally ponder the nature of news and how we consume, process and share it. Posts will generally be “working out loud” commentary that may or may be further developed later. Some will be clearly news-related; others maybe less so, but I’ll try not to meander too far into other territory.

I’m new to blogging, and suggestions and feedback are welcome.

And yes, if I can find that Polaroid, I’ll post it.