Article review: Blumler and Gurevitch, 1995

…and I have to start with some disclaimer. What I mean by “article review” is not so much a review than a short summary, and some reflection on the more interesting points. In fact, this time the subject is not even an article in the classic sense anyway, but a chapter: chapter 2 from The Crisis of Public Communication, by Jay G. Blumler and Michael Gurevitch (1995, Routledge). The title is “Linkages between the mass media and politics.”

The authors conceptualize the political communication system as a set of interrelated and mutually dependent relationships between various institutions and their audiences. The four main components of the system are: 1.) political institutions, 2.) media institutions, 3.) the audience’s orientation to political communication, and 4.) the “communication relevant” aspects of political culture.

(As you can see, the public sphere (either cultural or political) doesn’t appear in this model in an institutionalized form.)

Political institutions stem their power from the fact that they are accepted (cf. legitimation!) as “articulators of public interest,” partly because it is these institutions that have the authority and resources to carry out decisions that could have an impact on the whole of the society.

Media institutions have a trifold power base; these are its structural, psychological and normative bases. As for the first one of these:

The structural root of the power of the mass media springs from their unique capacity to deliver to the politician an audience which, in size and composition, is unavailable to him by any other means. (1995: 12 – 13)

Looking at this aspect the question prompts itself whether or not the internet can challenge this situation; or, perhaps, when and where will the ‘net be able to challenge it.

As for the psychological power base of the media institutions, this refers to the exploitation (but not necessarily abuse!) of previously earned trust and credibility. And, finally, the normative power base of media…

…springs from the respect that is accorded in competitive democracies to such tenets of liberal philosophy as freedom of expression and the need for specialized organs to safeguard citizens against possible abuses of political authority. (1995: 13)

So, instead of describing possible institutions that would embody “audience power,” Blumler and Gurevitch conceptualize the public as having some sort of “indirect” power; meaning that political and media institutions only have (legitimate) power because of the public.

“The public” is necessarily an oversimplification, and this is another important aspect of the article. The authors establish various “audience roles,” on the assumption that different private individuals have different motivations in turning (or, well, not turning) their interests towards the political matters. These roles are: the partisan, the liberal citizen, the monitor and the spectator; characterized by varying degrees and directions of interest in politics. Partisans are “seeking a reinforcement of existing beliefs,” liberal citizens “seek guidance in deciding how to vote,” monitors are looking for “information about features of the political environment (such as party policies or current issues)”, and spectators are seeking “excitement and other affective satisfactions.” It wasn’t fully clear to me how flexible Blumler and Gurevitch imagined these roles, and the process of role-taking. But perhaps they are best understood as not mutually exclusive, at least when observed not in a given moment, but during a certain time span. (Or, perhaps even better, it is not the actors that should be categorized into varios roles, but their actions.)

The distinction between these roles is not based on class or socio-economic background (although the model allows for different roles being more prominent in different groups of the society). This model avoids the simplification of talking about a “bourgeois” or “proletarian” public sphere, and it also avoids the simplification of distinguishing between “activists” and, well, “non-activists.” Which is, I think, a good idea.

What’s more, these audience rules might be matched against corresponding orientations on behalf of political and professional communicators. Without going into details, the following table shows the complementary roles (based on the assumption that audience members and communicators are linked in a “network of shared expectancies”):

Audience Media personnel Politicians
Partisan Editorial guide Gladiator
Liberal citizen Moderator Rational persuader
Monitor Watchdog Information provider
Spectator Entertainer Actor / performer
Blumler and Gurevitch, 1995: 15

For example: if the media are heavily influenced by political parties, the “gladitor” role will be often adopted by politicans, and media personnel will tend to lean towards publishing opinion (in the role of editorial guide). This in turn will mobilize members of the audience, making them assume the partisan role.

However, I don’t fully agree with the assumption that such a deterministic – and one-way – relationship can exist between political, media institutions and the audience. I guess it would be also quite tricky to empirically prove it, because the various roles, in the majority of cases, come without tags attached. The general premise or pretence might be that every member of an audience is “liberal citizen,” the media is “moderator” and all politicans are “rational persuaders” – but in reality this is not so. So how do you know who is taking which role at the moment – and why?

B&G conclude by pointing out how the norms and structrues of political and media institutions are different (so these might be studied and compared); and that there is such a phenomenon as political culture, which, in the political communication system, affects how the media are constrained by legal, normative structural and / or economic constraints.

Some food for thought, then. The most influential idea of the article – from the point of view of my research – is the distinction between various media and audience roles; this is a theme I should take up in the second part overall part of the project.

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