Political communication is an interdisciplinary field with roots stretching back to Aristotle and Plato, who debated the meaning of democracy and society. Modern political communication research incorporates not only the field of communication, including journalism and rhetoric, but also political science, sociology, history, psychology, geography, and others.
Political communication can mean many things. Put simply, it is the “role of communication in the political process” (Chaffee 1975, 15). A more precise description, used by the Political Communication section of the American Political Science Association (www.apsanet.org), offers that political communication is “the creation, shaping, dissemination, processing and effects of information within the political system – both domestic and international – whether by governments, other institutions, groups or individuals.” Furthermore, political communication scholars explore media in the political process, new media technologies, and societal- and individual-level effects on political processes. For example, Tekwani (2006) examined gaudy billboards as political communication in India, and Hanna (1992) explored the role of rock music in the political disintegration of East Germany.
The term “popular” has both positive and negative connotations. Negatively, it evokes notions of subordinate class position, dominance over the masses, and manipulation by the ruling class and/or culture industries. Adorno might have deemed “popular political communication” an oxymoron, believing that these popular cultural products serve only to control the masses and maintain status quo power relations. In this context, however, it means of, by, for, and about the people. Popular political communication incorporates complex local, national, and international political and media systems.
Popular Political Communication And The Public Sphere
Transparent and accessible popular political communication is necessary to have an informed public to facilitate dialogue and thriving governmental systems. As the world continues to expand into an electronic culture, heavily influenced by visual media such as television and the Internet, shifts in consciousness also occur. Each new communication technology, whether written or printed, televised or web-based, influences the way information is received and processed. Shorter attention spans, a focus on visuals, and a trend toward entertainment are just some of the outcomes from this shift to a more electronic culture. In some cases, popular political communication has been reduced to slogans and sound bites, due mostly to the economies of the media industry and advancements in media technology.
Political communication is both communication by a formal political organization and the freedom to criticize that system on the part of the general public, including journalists. What constitutes political communication varies with every political structure. The concepts of the public sphere and press freedoms are central concerns of popular political communication in western industrialized countries. In general, the public sphere is an ideal arena where ideas are generated, knowledge is shared, and opinions are freely debated and discussed. This forum is open and accessible for all to assemble and participate. Press freedom involves not only freedom from government control, but also freedom from commercial influence. While this might be a desirable model for other political structures, it is not always available. Where there is little individual press freedom, little to no private media ownership, and much government control of the media, as is the case in countries such as China, Laos, and Cuba, popular political communication often serves as a hegemonic tool for state propaganda. Annually, the nongovernmental organization Reporters without Borders publishes a Worldwide Press Freedom Index. In 2006, for example, the top three countries enjoying the most press freedom were Finland, Iceland, and Ireland. The bottom three, with the least press freedom, were North Korea, Turkmenistan, and Eritrea.
In global society, the media serve as a type of public sphere where information is exchanged, debated, and distributed to the masses, although the exchange is mostly one-directional – media to the masses. While the public may not have much production input with commercial media, particularly with newspaper and television, there still exists a social responsibility function of the media to serve the public interest in a democracy. The BBC is a good example of public service broadcasting in the UK. The idea of a European public sphere and linking citizens across Europe has developed along with the rise of the European Union and has prompted the establishment, for example, of the German political education system (Segert 2005). Scholars who explore the cultural influences on popular communication in Africa, for example, point to the difficulties in establishing an exchange due to frequent breakdowns of government and leadership, as well as military intervention in the political communication process (Nnaemeka 1990).
Given the freedoms and the commercial nature of media, particularly in the US, sensationalization of political discourse for entertainment value is permitted. Parody and satire are common formats used in western industrialized nations to critique the system. The Daily Show and the Colbert Report are examples of television programs used for this purpose. Political economic media scholars critique the strong commercial influence on the media. They insist more regulation is needed and the capitalist “free market” media model is inherently flawed at creating a true public sphere.
Most recently, radio as a vehicle for popular political communication has seen a surge of influence and availability in Latin American countries. In countries such as Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, comunicación popular (“communication of the people”) occurs through community radio, which is a tool used by the people in social and political struggles. Radio Sutatenza of Colombia and Radio Huayacocotla in Mexico focus on education and community organization (Gumucio Dagron 2001). In the US, popular political communication on radio often serves niche partisan audiences. Hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Dr Laura Schlessingler gained popularity among conservatives frustrated with the perceived mainstream media’s liberal bias. Air America radio targets more liberal, left-leaning listeners.
Television, arguably the most mainstream of all the media, takes a broad and diverse approach in its production of political discourse. With the development of cable, television tries to reach large audiences through broadcast stations, while specialized cable networks focus on fragmented or niche markets. In the US and many other countries, broadcast stations generally host national presidential debates and air political advertising. Debates are not only seen as contests with winners and losers, but also a game in punditry, where popular political pundits from the left and right critique their opponents’ success. Political communication through advertising can be as diverse and simple as painting candidate names on roadside boulders, airplanes streaming banners, and vans or cars blasting boastful campaign messages from megaphones, to straightforward television, radio, newspaper, and outdoor advertisements. Recent popular communication scholarship examines political discourse in popular late-night programs, as well as newer venues such as YouTube and blogs (Tessler 2006).
The newest medium with the greatest potential to provide in-depth (and almost unlimited) information, as well as the opportunity for individual citizens to contribute to political dialogue, is the Internet. While there are access and technical expertise inequities that even the most optimistic media reformers cannot deny, in many countries this medium offers the greatest opportunity to engage in political discourse even if governments regulate other forms of media. While many have only begun to incorporate this new technology, a few savvy bloggers and web page designers have been able to scoop mainstream news outlets. In the broader context, the Internet is relatively new, and individual users and corporations are trying to determine how to make the most of this medium as scholars monitor the progress and recommend democratic uses for this seemingly limitless new medium.
Many scholars believe a healthy democracy depends on a thriving public sphere, where political discussions are in-depth and free from fear of government retaliation. Providing journalists access to government officials and organizations and citizens the opportunity and freedom to participate in political debate are major challenges in many parts of the world. Even in countries where this relationship is claimed to exist, a close examination often reveals little transparency of process. Some of the biggest obstacles to popular political communication include consolidation of media ownership, and commercialization or profits being favored over public service, which includes the trend toward infotainment. Fraser suggests that the singular public sphere is unrealistic and citizens should seek out a “multiplicity of publics” (1992, 127) to participate actively in the popular political discourse.
- Adatto, K. (1990). Sound bite democracy, research paper R-2, Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy, Harvard University.
- Chaffee, S. H. (ed.) (1975). Political communication. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Fraser, N. (1992). Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. In C. Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Gumucio Dagron, A. (2001). Making waves: Stories of participatory communication for social change. New York: Rockefeller Foundation.
- Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Hanna, J. L. (1992). The role of rock music in the political disintegration of East Germany. In J. Lull (ed.), Popular music and communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Nnaemeka, T. I. (1990). Cultural influences, modern changes, and the sociology of modern African political communication. Journal of Black Studies, 20(3), 306–323.
- Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy. New York, NY: Methuen.
- Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Penguin.
- Segert, D. (2005). The new confusion: Eastern Europe in political education. Osteuropa, 55(8), 73–81.
- Tekwani, S. R. (2006). Visual culture in Indian politics: The gaudy billboard as political communication. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Sheraton, New York.
- Tessler, J. (2006). New media, new rules: The Federal Election Commission voted to regulate online political advertising, but exempted online political speech, including blogs. CQ Weekly, 64(14), 922.