AR; News, Talk, Opinion and Participation

The article “News, Talk, Opinion, Participation: The Part Played by Conversation in Deliberative Democracy”, by Kim, Wyatt and Katz, has in the 11 years passed since its publishing become a classic.

Starting from a working concept of deliberative democracy, it examines the relationship between news media use, political conversation, the quality of opinion reached by people, and their political activism. It does so through analyzing results of an extensive survey conducted in the US.

* News media use is closely correlated with political talk – that is, the more someone is exposed to news media, the more often they can be expected to have conversations about politics too. (The direction of causality might not be so trivial, but an array of both theoretical and empirical research suggests that news media use “comes first” – that is, hearing the news leads to talking about them.)

* People’s willingness to argue is influenced both by their perception of the majority of opinion, and by news media use (and, consequently, the amount of political conversation they have). BUT, and this is perhaps the important bit, this latter effect – the effect of news media use and political talk – is STRONGER than the former.

(A straightforward effect of the perception of majority opinion is what Noelle-Neumann labeled “the spiral of silence”, and which has been referred to in numerous occasions by other authors too; – so the idea is that if you know that your opinion goes against that of the prevailing public opinion, you are likely to find it harder to express it.

From the point of view of deliberative democracy, this is of course an unwelcome phenomenon, because it might lead to the silencing of voices of the minority – or of any contradicting opinion – while the debate is much likelier to be fruitful if it forces the participants to reevaluate their claims by offering opposing arguments.

But Kim et al. found that the effects of news media use were stronger than the effects of the spiral of silence – which is good news for advocates of deliberative democracy.)

* Using news media and having political conversations have a positive effect on the quality of opinion of people (as measured by various instruments, such as their consideredness and argumentativeness).

* News media use also correlates with political participation, but rather only to “campaigning” (political participation within the political system, by “official” means such as campaigning, voting, attending townhall meetings and the like), and not to “complaining” (unofficial political participation, such as demonstrating, writing readers’ letters or expressing views on call-in radio shows). For “complaining” activities, demographic factors offer a better explanation.

A final point I’d like to mention goes back to the “quality of opinion.” The authors sum up nicely the tradition that holds that most people don’t actually form clear opinions on political issues – unless they are forced to by some kind of external stimulus. What we usually have are half-baked pieces of “pre-opinion”, which might not come together as a coherent system of beliefs. Or we might have a strong opinion on a particular issue, but we might simply be uninterested in another, related issue that is usually perceived by others as equally important.

This is so- until we start to have a debate, or receive some other external, political impulse, when we are forced to think through what we actually are thinking, and what our views are on things.

This is what Habermas referred to as “achieving self-understanding.”

And the point I’d like to make is that I think this is the biggest benefit of blogging (or, for that matter, of writing a personal diary): that it provides an external stimulus that – ideally – makes us think through what we ourselves actually think.

Kim, Joohan, Robert O. Wyatt, Elihu Katz (1999): “News, Talk, Opinion, Participation: The Part Played by Conversation in Deliberative Democracy”, in Political Communication, 16: 361-385.
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