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Habermas and the Public Sphere Essay

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Updated: May 21st, 2020


In 1962, Harbeneas introduced the concept of public sphere as an ideal and also as an empirical description through his seminal work “The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of Bourgeois society”. Through his work, he created the impression that the public sphere was an arena where different people would come together to discuss issues of social interest.

In his opinion, every person was an equal participant and had an equal chance to participate in the open discussions (Colhoun 1992). Bennet et al. (2004) adds a contemporary twist to the public sphere definition by stating that it is “the collection of places and spaces-from neighbourhood cafes to internet chat rooms- where private individuals can speak their minds in public, form opinions and become independent agents in governing the state” ( p. 437).

In the contemporary society, the media has assumed a major role as an informer, educator and an entertainer to the masses. In capitalist societies, it also takes a mediating role between the social life, the economy and the state. In Kellner (2006) opinion however, the media have been neglecting its mandate as a tool to promote democracy and serve the public interest. As such, the author argues that the media has for decades now forfeited the crucial role of aiding the formation of a democratic society.

Drawing similarities between the current day communication media and what Habermas refers to as the “steering media”, Kellner (2006) argues that the media has a major role to play in the public sphere and especially in regard to promoting democracy, yet is has failed to rise to the occasion allowing a crisis in the public sphere to take place.

But does Habermas theorise the functions and nature of present-day communication media? Well, his writings suggest that he perceived the media as a tool for information transmission. To him, the media was not as important as debates and the eventual consensus building that formed the basis of democratic process (Habermas 1992).

This explains why he chose to highlight the dissimilarity between “the communicative generation of legitimate power on hand and the manipulative deployment of media power to procure mass loyalty, consumer demand and compliance with systemic imperatives on the other” (p. 452).

Analysing the above quote one gets the impression that Habermas did not consider the media as a tool that could bring about democratic transformation as he perceives it (media) as a tool that can easily be manipulated, and also interested in power and money. This means that Habermas excluded the media from contributing to the democratization process through giving people a platform where they could equally participate in debates and social discussions (Relic 2005).

According to Kellner (2006), Habermas’ rigid perception of the media is partly explained by the fact that his perception of public sphere was defined at a time when print media was the only prominent form of media. During this time, Kellner (2006) observes that the print media fostered arguments that were rational, objective and agreeable.

Being a writer who got his opinions and concepts published in print media, Kellner (2006) believes Habermas had an open bias against other forms of media, which include broadcast (radio and TV) and the internet. This is despite the fact that broadcast media and the internet was presenting the society with new forums where public debate could be held.

In Kellner’s observation, the public sphere as stipulated by Habermas would be incomplete in its democratization attempts without the active participation of the ‘fourth estate’ as the media is commonly known. But why does Kellner reach to this conclusion? Well, in most democracies, governments constitute three arms namely: the executive, the judiciary and the legislature.

While these three arms of government are meant to maintain the checks and balances that would prevent abuse of power, the media, usually plays the crucial role of highlighting some of the shortcomings in government that the three arms would naturally keep mum about. In an apt definition of its role, it’s right to say that media in democracies play a watch-dog role in all institutions of government.

If one was to define democracy using Abraham Lincoln’s terms, it is “government by the people, of the people and for the people”. This then means that the governed people have a key role to play in a democracy. Notably however, people cannot play an active role if they are not properly informed. Here is where the media chips in.

According to Kellner (2006), the media balances power by providing the necessary checks and balances to a government. In their additional role, they should serve as informers and cultivators of active citizens who are ready to participate in governance whenever the need arises. Failure by the media to inform and educate the citizens, or failure to check the excesses of government would lead to a crisis in the respective democracies.

In Habermas’s theories, one gets the impression that the media is a sounding board through which social problems can be voiced to the political system.

Based on his description of the public sphere, this essay holds the opinion that the contemporary media can easily fit into the public sphere. This is because, the media is able to gather information from different corners of a society, broadcast the same, and encourage people to react on the same and even raise discussion issues where people can debate and exchange opinions regarding the same.

According to Kellner (2006) the democratic theory requires the public sphere to highlight social problems, give them a theme and if possible amplify them in such a manner as to catch the attention of the law makers. Out of the debates that take place in the public sphere, possible solutions can also be given to the law makers or other branches of government.

The contemporary media fits this discussion as it provides the public with a discussion forum outside the political confines and as a result, people are free to debate specific social issues and come up with possible solutions that they would like to see implemented by the government.

According to Sani (2009), for the contemporary media to fit the public sphere as defined by Habermas, it needs to be free, fair and objective. This means that whenever the media is laying down an agenda for the public to pursue, then it would have no hidden motives. Rather, it would be pursuing the need to promote and preserve democracy and the independent institutions of the government. Further, the media should be accountable as a watchdog.

The equal platform offered by media for people to debate and discuss issues conforms to the public sphere definition. According to Sani (2009), the free and fair media should hold the notion that every person has a valuable contribution that he or she can make.

This is supported by the idea that “there is no way of telling where a good idea will come from; valuable contributions come in different forms; a person’s contribution has the capacity to stimulate better ideas in others. It can also be refuted, reformulated or some value added to it” (p.5).

In one of its critical roles, the media serves as an information tool that disseminated educative and informative information to the masses, which in turn leads to development in given societies. In democracies, the role of the media is voicing the lowly voices which otherwise would not be heard is crucial to fair representation (Sani 2009).

More to this, the media acts as the public informer on the activities of the government. According to Sani, “the public has a legal right to know what its government is doing and the press is the representative of the public in finding that out” (p. 12). In a participatory society, the public’s right to information is crucial since it avails the information needed to create social awareness, which is in turn important in bringing out the truth about political controversies.

Giving a voice to public opinion

The media in democracies is expected to voice public opinion objectively to allow the respective governments understand what the public supports or dissents. However, political reality suggests that the newsmakers have a major effect on the news aired by the media unlike the ordinary citizens. Political observes however note that the news makers are often representative of the public opinion although this is not unanimously agreed (Sani 2009).

It is also apparent that sometimes the media fails to keep in touch with public opinion since it lacks the necessary connection with the public. Sani using the example of the media in the United States notes that while free speech is allowed, the degree of which the media is ready to engage in the same is often questionable.

In some cases, the media is very outspoken and often seems to investigate all leads to the story, while other stories are treated more cautiously. The language, the tone and emphasis used by the media when covering stories affect how the public perceive the public event.

Accusations of biasness in the media also seem to jeopardise its role in the public sphere. The US media for example reporting about the war in the Middle East seems biased towards Palestine. Most highlights create the impression that Palestine is the perpetrators and attracts the wrath of the Israeli’s.

But is this usually the case? Or do the US media deliberately shield most of the atrocities by the Israelis towards the Palestinians? While journalists may be to blame for this kind of partial reporting, where they gather their news from is the most likely sources of their biases.

According to Sani (2009), news sources mainly feature selected institutions, which exclude the general public. More to this, opinions voiced by elite people in the society are given more weight than opinions from the ordinary citizens. Views expressed by ideological dissenters are also ignored.

This goes against Habermas concept of equality in the participation of debates held in the public sphere. Sani notes that opinions voiced by the public receive quaint treatment often being ignored or simply published on the back or inner pages of the media.

This however changes when electoral politics are concerned. Suddenly, public opinions become important because after all, the public forms the electorate and therefore the power to elect people to governance posts lies with them. The same scenario is repeated in matters that require public support. Even in such issues, the media needs to play an important role in alerting people that they need to judge the political scene in order to influence politics in their jurisdictions.

Public sphere

According to Sani (2009), “the public sphere is the means through which democratic decisions are reached” (p. 20). For media to be seen as a public sphere however, it needs to be accessible to all publics and also needs to be representative of all people. Traditionally, the media provided the link between the government and the governed people.

Considering the definition of democracy discussed earlier in this essay, it is clear that the role of the media as an informer and an educator of the masses is almost a clear cut. By providing the public with the right information, the media empowers them to not only make informed decisions regarding the form of leadership that is most appropriate for them, but also enable the public to hold the government accountable.

In the liberal theory, the public sphere “is an arena between the distinct areas of state and civil society that guarantees the protection of an individual” (p. 20). This suggests that the liberals perceive the public sphere as a political domain, while media is associated with the government.

Considering that liberals believe that the civil society should have more powers over the government, it is clear that the media in their perspective is expected to meet the information needs presented by the society. Notably however, privatisation and conglomeration which are current trends in the media industry hampers free flow of information, which in turn means that the media does not fully meet its democratic ideals (Sani 2009).

In the contemporary society Kellner (2006) argues that the public sphere needs to be redefined in order to include political struggles, discussions, information sharing and contestations that take place in public forums. The new definition according to the author also needs to take account of new developments in the media and hence needs to include new discussion platforms such as the cyberspace, face-to-face discussions as well as the wide array of broadcast media.

These forms of media are creating public spheres where debate, information sharing, and discussions can take place. The platforms advanced by the new forms of media can be used by intellectuals and activists to engage the masses for purposes of intervening in affairs affecting a specific society.

With internet use becoming commonly used among a sizeable fraction of the population, a new public sphere is in the making and it would be foolhardy to ignore the developments occurring therein. Blog sites have now presented people with real time discussion platforms where they are able to voice their opinions regarding a specific issue.

As such, Kellner (2006) observes that the web platforms have the capability to revitalize democracy by increasing the distribution of progressive and critical ideas to the masses, in addition to creating new possibilities for promoting positions, attaining social control and manipulating the masses.

To stress the role that the media plays in the public sphere, Kellner (2006) predicts that political wars in future will be fought not only in the traditional sites like parliament and the streets, but will also penetrate new realms in the computer world as well as other broadcast media. To this end, the author suggests that people interested in the culture and politics of the future should be willing to delve in the new public spheres created by information technologies.

The new challenge with information technologies producing a new form of public sphere lies in ensuring that the platforms created are not used as manipulative tools, but are rather used to educate and inform the masses. According to Kellner (2006), this can only be attained if people engaged in the democratic process teach the masses on the right and beneficial way of using the new technologies.

Such would include teaching them how top articulate interest and experiences on the new platforms and ways through which people can promote beneficial and objective debates amongst themselves. By doing this, the World Wide Web would create a new platform where new ideas would be shared amongst people and even common issues affecting everyone in the world like climate change would be discussed and solutions proposed.

The advantages of the new public sphere are identified by Abrash (2006) as easy access; social networks; and scalability. In regard to easy access, everyone who has access to the internet can participate in the relationships and online debates. The social networks on the other hand are not structured.

Rather, people join voluntarily thus meeting the standards set by Habermas that debates would be open to all willing participants. Regarding scalability, Abrash (2006) notes that the social networks where public debates take place start small and gradually grow to massive numbers. In some cases, participants are able to consolidate resources that promote growth and development in their respective areas.

Unlike traditional broadcast media which is regulated by the media code of ethics, and in-house rules that sets the boundaries of what can be published or not, there are concerns regarding the regulation of new technologies (Kellner 2006). More to this, there are also concerns about funding and accountability. No doubt these are challenges that will need to be addressed as the internet progresses to a fully fledged public sphere where democratic principles can be exchanged.

There is also no denying that the open participation structure adopted by contemporary media can turn chaotic. This then raises the need for a structure, which not only regulates the debates, but also sets specific rules on how participants can behave (Abrash 2006). This would ensure that the new public spheres are accountable, but does not means that people cannot speak as freely.

There is also the challenge of misinformation generated in new public forums as well as polarized discussion that seem to favour one group of the divide. Using the example of popular blog sites in the US, Abrash (2006) notes that white men are the dominant contributors.

In such a case therefore, one would expect that the debates would not be inclusive of female opinions as well as opinions from people from other races. In future therefore and in an attempt to promote democratic tendencies in such media, there will be a need to ensure that such media include diverse voices from different sections of the society.

Sustainability of the new media is also a key challenge. This is especially the case considering that the internet is a highly competitive environment, which would need a solid foundation and support from the participants in order to survive. Abrash (2006) further notes that sustainability would also call for the public media to engage with the market-driven economy in order to secure sponsorship and funding.

There is no ignoring that the web-based media will be subject to policy issues. At present, it seems that the web-based media is yet to receive the protection needed to ensure it survival and longevity in the public sphere. This then means that policies need to be formulated and enforced in order to encourage people to nurture and protect the public sphere created by the internet. Such policies could also encourage citizens to participate in the public spaces created.

According to Abrash (2006) however, the media holds opportunities for the public sphere unequalled by any other platforms where people can meet and discuss issues.

For example, the media is capable of “modelling new public behaviours” (p. 8). This assertion is informed by the fact that media has given the public a platform where opinions can be voiced. In an attempt to diffuse polarized opinions, the media uses moderators who set a coherent discourse of a debate. The ability of the contemporary media to broadcast over long distances sometimes transcending continental boundaries means that the participation and engagement of the public is also wider.

The contemporary media also encourages public spheres to be concentrated on shared interests and issues (Abrash 2006). Again, the ability if contemporary media to transcend national and geographical boundaries means that groups with similar interest regionally, nationally or globally can share their ideas and opinions on a common media platform.

With the internet gaining a central place in all these, face-to-face discussions are replaced by real-time virtual discussions. But what benefits has this had on the public sphere? Well, according to Relgic (2005) the technological innovations in the media have opened political possibilities that were unattainable in the past.

For example, the authoritarian governments that prevented people from accessing information are finding it harder to prevent such information from circulating. However, this does not in any way mean that the democratization process is easier to attain with the information age; Rather, how governments and the public use the new forms of media to create awareness is what really matters.


Media use in peace times

As indicated elsewhere in this essay, climate change is affecting people of all walks of life regardless of where they are in the world. This then is an issue of public importance that is being discussed in numerous forums. While meetings between countries are only occasional, the debate on the climate change and the environmental impact that people are experiencing as a result is an ongoing debate in the media.

As Dobson (2008) notes, the environment is a common-pool resources, which is subject to abuse by some self-serving people at the disadvantage who are interested doing their part to maintain it.

In a website that publishes articles that cover ecological and sustainability issues in the world, Dobson (2008) offers his opinion about what is jeopardising efforts to conserve the environment. More specifically, he zeros in on ‘free-riders’ who take no active role in conserving environment, yet they benefit from the same environment in equal measures and possibly even more than who take conservation measures do.

Dobson (2008) uses the platform availed by the web to pass his arguments to readers that tradable carbon permits, which have been advocated as a solution to the climate change problem and those who continue to abuse the climate is not a solution, but only enhances the problem.

He argues that carbon traders set the prices at ridiculously low prices thus jeopardising the entire notion of carbon cap trading. He proposes a different type of solution where the public need to be informed that environment conservation should be a priority not because of the self benefits that people can accrue from the same, but because it benefits each and every individual in equal measure.

Yet, Dobson (2008) correctly predicts that such a process would still be dogged by the ‘free-rider’ problem. To this, he notes that the solution to climate change would have to include cultural, economic, political and technological ideals in order to be successful. Most of all, the government would need to expand and protect the public sphere for environment protection to take place.

According to Dobson, privatisation of key public sectors is putting the public interests at compromised positions because private properties are protected by law. By privatising key public services, the government is aiding in the corrosion of public sphere as well as the interest of the majority of the people.

In his argument, Dobson (2008) believes that privatisation is having a major impact on the public sphere and no wonder pool resources like the environment are being exploited by self-seeking private citizens. In a platform like the one used by Dobson, one gets the impression that a wide access of by people who have been wondering about government’s approach to environment conservation could have elicited more comments.

Presently, only one person has commented on the article meaning that either people have not yet accessed the forum, or do not find Dobson’s argument worth commenting about. This then raises doubts about effectiveness of new media as a debate platform in the public sphere.

Hobson (2009) observes that public debates regarding climate change often involve opinions voiced from cultural understandings, personal experiences and also from scientific understanding. When such varied opinions are brought together on a public forum, the participants perceive the debate as highly significant since it relates to policies set by government and practices observed by the public. Such debates are therefore more likely to shape the public collective perceptions about environmental matters.

The just concluded coverage of the British elections is an example of media coverage in peace times. Though the British media is supposed to give all parties equal coverage in the run-up to the general elections, Labour party and its leader Gordon Brown received 53 percent of the total media coverage, while the Conservative party and its leader David Cameron received 32 percent of the total media coverage. The Liberal Democratic Party and its leader Nick Clegg received the least coverage with only 15 percent coverage (O’Leary analytics, 2010).

War time example

The media has always been an information tool during war time, not only providing up to date information of the happenings in the battle fields, but also creating a sense of unity among the government, the army and the public (Stevenson 1995).

The Falklands war, which occurred in Britain in the 1980s is such one example where the media took an active role in disseminating information and creating forums where people could voice their opinions regarding the war. As one would expect, war times are laden with tension and the public have deep concerns about the welfare of the country.

As Stevenson (1995) notes, the Falklands War was no different. The media at the time was not as liberal as the case today and depended much on the directives offered by the Defence minister during their coverage. Lobby systems also affected the news that was aired to the public as well as the judgement held by journalists regarding what the public would like to hear. Stevenson (1995) notes that the media had an open bias during the war.

He argues that the media coverage misrepresented women by portraying them in their traditional home making roles despite the fact that they (women) were more actively engaged in economic activities following large numbers of men going to war. Meyer & Moors (2006) argues that the media did not attempt to go above the prevailing societal norms that did not perceive women as part of the public. “From a man’s viewpoint, the female public spheres had to be secret, and were thus invisible and inaccessible to men” (p. 122).

Media bias was especially evident in the coverage of the Iraq War by Western media. A statement released by journalism analysts about the state of the news media in 2005 reported that Fox News, which is a major cable Network in the United States, was openly biased in its coverage of the war in Iraq. Fox news was not alone in this. According to Global policy forum (2009), a lot of media in the US fed the public with sensational and one sided stories.

According to Relgic’ (2005), the media though undoubtedly presenting the public with a platform where they can communicate and debate issues more promptly and with few inhibitions is being affected negatively by biased reporting and lack of objectivity. The author points out on the declining public trust suffered by the media even as the number of media stations and mass media channels continue to increase.

Notably however, the media is not on this downward trend alone. Politicians and governments are not as trusted by the public as was the case in the past. Relgic’ (2005) however argues that the over supply of media channels to the public is probably overwhelming them and eroding the trust they had in the media. More so, the infiltration of all types of content into the media means that cultural values are being eroded.

To the public, this is a worrying trend that not only threatens the national identity, but also the social coherence and democracy that a more society-centred public sphere would have provided. But is there any evidence to support such allegations? Well, if the negative perceptions radiated by people and the declining participation of people in electoral processes especially in the western democracies are anything to go by, then this might be indeed true (Calhoun 1992).

Do the media meet the criteria of public sphere?

Contemporary media in the world is either open in their news discourse and the ability to encourage public debate or closed where news content is determined by the elite (Bennet Et al., 2004). In different times, especially when countries are embroidered in war, the media is not consistent in it coverage giving away their biases and lack of objectivity to the public. In the 1992 riots that occurred in Los Angeles, the US media was for example very candid in their coverage.

The media gave rioters a forum where they could air their grievances to the government (Bennet et al., 2004). However, the exact opposite can be said about the coverage of the 1991 gulf war. While the debate about the war was valid, the media did not give the dissenting voices as much coverage and as a result, their opinions did not grasp the attention of the government and politicians as would have been the case if the media had covered their plight with a more dedicated intensity.

In journalistic training, journalists are taught about how to distinguish what is newsworthy and what is not. Bennet et al. (2004) observes that conflicts that involve the elite are especially news worth airing. Stories that engage the public interest are also considered newsworthy.

For example, presidential declaration, speeches or interventions always attract news coverage as do tragic news that includes deaths. Extraordinary happenings, which typify the cliché “man bites dog”, are also considered newsworthy as is the case with scandals, which feed the appetite of sensational journalism.

Overall, news is gathered by indexing, strategic communication or coverage of breaking news. In some cases, journalists are able to combine the three to come up with a story.

The ultimate test of public involvement however can be measured through gauging if the news has covered diverse voices; identifying and comparing the values in the voices; and the inclusion of opposing views in the story for purposes of upholding objectivity.

According to Bennet et al. (2004), the more of these measures a news story meets, the greater public sphere does such news give to the public thus allowing more deliberations. The author argues that meeting the three measures allows the consumers of the news to consider the different perspectives highlighted in the story before forming an opinion.


Today and in line with Stevenson (1995) assertions, the media remains a vital tool in the public sphere for three reasons: Its independence from the state and the economy thus allowing it to occupy an institutional space unmatched by other instruments in the public sphere; public media provides a broad arena where diverse groups can exchange ideas and opinions; and the media is well able of addressing members of the public as individual citizens instead of consumers.

However, there is no denying that the media remain weak when compared with the authorities, which dictate the environment through which the media should work in. While the media succeeds to a large extent in enhancing accountability and transparency in governance, there is no denying that the extent of media coverage is only successful to the extent that the government in power allows it.

Often, this happens because the classified government information can not be accessed by the media, unless in situations where someone leaks it to them. Trying to obtain government information through acts that states that the public has a right to information that is in their interest often fails because governments can always use state security as a reason why such information cannot be released to the public.

Regardless of the media’s effort to foster discussions or inform the public, this essay holds the opinion that the contemporary media does not come close to the public sphere ideals defined by Habermas, whereby civility, mutual respect and dialogue were defined as the core values of deliberations, while the closure of an issue would involve recognising other people involved in the deliberations and a final attempt to reach a consensus.

Instead, today’s media provides provocative analysis, but the levels through which the public can engage in the discussion or still gain recognition and responses for their contribution is still not as clear cut as the Habermas definition would have it.


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Bennet, L. Et al. (2004) Managing the Public Sphere: Journalistic construction of the great globalization debate. Journal of Communication, 9(1), 437-454.

Calhoun, C. (1992) Habermas and the public sphere. MIT press, Cambridge, MA.

Dobson, A. (2008) . Web.

Global Policy Forum (2009) Media coverage of Iraq. Web.

Habermas, J. (1992) Further reflections on the Public Sphere, in Calhoun C (ED) Habermas and the Public Sphere. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Hobson, K. (2009) Climate change and the re-invigoration of the public sphere: issues, methodologies and the way(s) forward. Earth and Environmental Science, 6(1), 1307-1311.

Kellner, D. (2006) Habermas, the Public Sphere, and Democracy: A critical Intervention. 1-17. Web.

Meyer, B. & Moors, A. (2006) Religion, media, and the public sphere. Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press.

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Relic, D. (2005) Media, civil society and the quest for transparency and accountability of the security sector. Working paper, FG2 (01), 2-11.

Sani, M. A. (2009) The public sphere and media politics in Malaysia. Newcastle, Cambridge scholars.

Stevenson, N. (1995) Understanding media cultures. Sage, London.

The state of the news media. (2005) An annual report on American journalism: Cable TV. Web.

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