What is the definition of public discourse

Topics and their meaning in public discourse

1 Introduction

The daily gathering of information about local, regional or global current topics is part of everyday life for most people and is firmly anchored in the daily routine. This is not only the case for reasons of interest, but also because there is the possibility of exchanging ideas with fellow human beings about current events and topics.

One of the tasks of the media is, among other things, to provide topics that can be discussed in public. According to Habermas (1962), a rational exchange of views should then take place in public discourse, which is a basic requirement for democracy, since public discourse takes on the role of mediator between the private sector and the state.

However, whether and to what extent a public discourse takes place on a topic differs greatly. Some topics, such as the recent earthquake in Japan and its devastating effects, are on everyone's lips in a very short time and for a relatively long time, while others are just as important, such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 1010 and 10. the ecological consequences of which are apparently hardly present in public discourse. Sometimes topics do not even find their way into the public discourse; not everything that happens in the world can be exchanged in detail. While some topics are very controversial, such as the accusation of plagiarism of Karl-Theodor zu Gutenberg's doctoral thesis, everyone seems to be in agreement on other topics; reporting here is only relatively one-sided and without a comparison of different views.

So there is a wide range of possibilities about how a topic or a message affects public discourse. Often this public discourse also has consequences with regard to political or personal decisions, such as the resignation of a politician who has lost his public reputation or public approval due to a media event. It is therefore important to know when a topic is assigned a meaning in public, in which phases topics get into and out of the public discourse and which influencing factors exist that increase the importance of a topic in public. This is to be clarified in the following.

First of all, the concept of public discourse needs to be examined more closely. Then different models of topic careers are to be explained and finally theories about influencing factors that increase or decrease the importance of a topic in the public are considered. Finally, the influence of media reporting should be shown specifically for politics.

2. On the concept and meaning of public discourse - three points of view

The philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas is one of the authors who dealt most with the public. In his book “Structural Change of the Public”, published in 1962, he analyzes, among other things, the emergence of the political public. At the time of mercantilism in the 17th century, this developed increasingly through the emergence of coffee houses and salons, in which people from the bourgeoisie met to communicate on political and economic topics. Characteristics of these institutions were the general lack of isolation of the audience as well as the social equality within the members (1990, p.97 f.), Which created a discussion climate in which the power of the argument gave the possibility of producing a rational public opinion. As a result of this exchange, decisions by authorities should be critically reflected and discussed in order - similar to a marketplace of ideas - to produce a public opinion that takes all interests into account.

Nowadays this is hardly possible from the point of view of globalization and the functional differentiation of society. Instead of the coffee houses or salons, the mass media have taken on the function of creating publicity. With the increasing influence of the press and later also of the radio, a platform has emerged that makes it possible to discuss topics and matters of general interest in front of a broad audience.

In the "Discourse Ethics" (1991) developed with Karl Otto Apel, the core element of which is a rational-argumentative dialogue that adequately takes into account the justified needs of everyone, it is shown that an intersubjective public discourse recognized by all participants in a community through the domination-free public discourse Truth emerges that enables participation in state decisions. Through generally recognized values ​​and norms that can be freely accepted by everyone, a consensus develops, which Habermas and Apel call the “universalization principle” (Gottschalk-Mazouz, 2000, p.17). It is therefore the task of all those concerned to lead discourses and establish this consensus in order to contribute to the good of all. For Habermas, a discourse is a form of communication in which norms and validity claims that have become problematic are made an issue. Thus the discourse represents a fundamental social integration instance (Gottschalk-Mazouz, 2000, p.19).

The public thus acts as an intermediary between the state and the needs of society (Habermas, 1990, p. 90). That is why public discourse is still important today, especially in democracies. Participation in the public discourse is free and, according to Article 3 of the Basic Law of the FRG, is open to everyone; this should not only enable citizens to participate in social and political affairs, but also legitimize state decisions.

The public discourse can thus be seen as an interface between the private and the state. It is crucial that Habermas views public discourses from a normative point of view. From the perspective of democracy theory, it is explained how public discourses should be: social consensus and social legitimacy should be won and enforced again and again through unwritten rules and lively exchange as well as informational processes (Scherer / Thiele, 2008, p.102).

In fact, however, this ideal is often inconsistent with reality. In the spirit of the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory, Habermas criticizes the culture industry and the mass consumption of communicatively one-sided programs, which leads to the fact that rational arguments are no longer in the foreground, but rather an indefinite tendency towards public opinion takes the place of public opinion (Habermas, 1990, P. 344). The group's communication processes are now either directly or mediated by opinion leaders under the influence of the mass media (Habermas, 1990, p.355). This affects the discursive element and the integrative function of public opinion is no longer fully fulfilled.

Noelle-Neumann therefore looks at the motivation to participate in public discourse from an individual perspective. It assumes that there is a manifest and a latent function of public opinion: the manifest function induces citizens to participate in the formation of political will in a rational discourse; the latent function, on the other hand, consists in the social control of the individual (Noelle-Neumann, 1992, p.283ff.)

Because the individual has participated in the formation of a social consensus, he is forced to submit to it. In their opinion, public opinion acts as a “social force” in the form that - due to the fear of isolation - assumptions about the opinion of others influence one's own statements (Noelle-Neumann, 1980, p.23ff). Her concept of the spiral of silence, which emphasizes the social-psychological aspect of the public, refers to the assumption that the opinion of the population is based on the assumption of the majority opinion, which in turn is partly shaped by the mass media (Schulz, 1997, p.94). She sees the mass media as an orientation for the individual insofar as a danger that they can convey an inaccurate picture of the climate of opinion, and that in turn the incorrect definition of the situation can lead to a change in the population (Schulz, 2011, p. 64). If the public discourse then takes place under the guise of an opinion that is not really represented by a majority, individual effects can become long-term political effects, as could be the case, for example, with election decisions. According to Noelle-Neumann, public discourse can only take place with the inclusion of the social nature of people and is therefore not always rational.


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