Press In America Paper
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Press In America Paper
Running head: PUBLIC OPINION, DEMOCRACY, & JOURNALISM 1
Public Opinion, Democracy, & Journalism
Andrea E. Puskar
PUBLIC OPINION, DEMOCRACY, & JOURNALISM 2
Public Opinion, Democracy, & Journalism
Walter Lippmann was the “best-informed, most widely traveled, best-connected
American journalist of the twentieth century” (Daly, 2012, p. 222). Being an influencer of
foreign policy and public interest, Lippmann wrote the book, Public Opinion, after witnessing
propaganda and its effects on soldiers in Germany during WWI. Public opinion is the “aggregate
of the views of individual adults on matters of public interest” and is greatly affected by the press
(Bardes and Oldendick, 2006, p. 5). In his book, Lippmann describes the correlation between
news and public opinion in a democracy. He answers the question – What is the probability that
the majority in a democracy is knowledgeable enough to make informed decisions? – throughout
his book using specific terminology (Daly, 2012, p. 224). Terms that Lippmann coined convey
the historical relationship between journalists who influence public opinion and citizens of a
Public Opinion illustrates the discrepancy between perception and reality. Reality is the
big picture, the truth, and the path to informed citizenry. Perception is the small picture, the
prejudiced truth, and the path to uninformed citizenry. Lippmann describes this discrepancy
using Plato’s cave allegory that Chris Daly quotes in Covering America (2012): “bound prisoners
[citizens] can see only shadows [perceptions from news] on the cave wall rather than the real
objects [reality] casting these shadows” (p. 224). Once the prisoners exit the cave, they will be
able to see reality [good form] and no longer subjective perceptions [bad form]. Furthermore,
Lippmann (1922) describes the press as the “beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about,
bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision” (p. 195). Journalists primarily
report through the lens of their own consciousness, but they should report about the entire
environment where their consciousness is formed. If the press published subjective articles about
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representatives, the citizens will only be informed on what the “light” hits and not the darkness
or the entire environment. These two examples from Lippmann reveal how the press discusses
certain environments that are either sensationalized or subjective and might lack the full picture.
Consequently, democratic citizens cannot make representative choices if they rely only on
perceptions from the press. This consequence is one reason for Lippmann’s anti-democratic
Democratic theory assumes people are capable of self-government. Unfortunately, this
assumption is problematic since the people are innately subjective; the press then feeds this
subjective instinct, and the media targets advertisers rather than the people (Bybee, 1997, para.
7). Lippmann focuses on this worldview throughout Public Opinion while concluding democracy
is doomed. An alternative worldview would belong to Lippmann’s critic, John Dewey, who
agrees in part with Lippmann but is more concerned about the civil and industrial aspects of
democracy (Bybee, 1997, para. 9). It is essential for democracy to create prosperous
environments for individuals. With a greater emphasis on these civil issues, the press will better
serve the people. Education then becomes the issue in a democracy.
When comparing Lippmann to the father of the field of public relations, Edward
Beranys, one will realize the intertwining theories about propaganda and education. Bernays
states in his book Propaganda (2004), “[the public] does not realize that education as a social
force is not receiving the kind of attention it has the right to expect in a democracy” (p. 120).
Education is a primary solution to help citizens avoid public manipulation. Lippmann argues that
the “men of action” in a democracy should be few in number and these citizens will be educated
to govern, not the entire electorate (Westbrook, 1991, p. 299). Dewey believes the answer is to
improve schooling so people could play their roles better in a democracy and become informed
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(Westbrook, 1991, p. 297). Another Lippmann critic, James Carey, believes problems of public
opinion today are Lippmann’s fault because of his elite expectations for voters (Schudson, 2008,
p. 2). Carey deems Lippmann’s argument that voters are “inherently incompetent to direct public
affairs, ” to be a misconception of democracy (para. 8). This debate is a main effect of Public
Opinion since the debate determines whether democracy is doomed and whether the press plays
a primary role in democracy being doomed.
Institutional factors were the most important reason for Lippmann writing Public
Opinion. With mass communication, one would think people had enough information to govern
appropriately. Lippmann disagreed by explaining how citizens get pictures in their heads not
from the truth, but from perceived mass communication (Daly, 2012, p. 224). He emphasizes the
importance of social scientists informing journalists and then journalists informing the public
through media. Authors of A Journalist’s Guide to Public Opinion Polls (1994), Gawiser and
Witt, use The Opinion Triangle to describe this emphasis with polls, “[Polls create] an opinion
triangle connecting the public to polls to the journalists and then back to the public” (p. 2). With
The Opinion Triangle, Lippmann could further his argument by stating governments do in fact
rely on the media to inform citizens. An alternative for The Opinion Triangle is unlikely in a
digital democracy where media has a huge effect on public opinion and communication.
Another institutional factor as to why Lippmann wrote his book is the comparison of
newspapers to other institutions like school and church. Newspapers differ from these
institutions since taxpayers do not pay for news and papers do not rely on subsides or collections
(Lippmann, 1922, p. 204). Furthermore, journalism does not compare to other fields like law and
engineering because a free press is one where consumers do not pay for service. Hence, citizens
do not pay for news, unless they subscribe. These points affect journalism today because
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journalists have to answer tough questions like “is journalism a profession?” or “who do
journalists work for?” Even though Public Opinion addresses this issue, these questions would
still arise if the book were not published since the dynamic between journalism and democracy is
A material factor for Lippmann was the economic limitations placed on newspapers.
Before advertising, newspapers relied on subscriptions where readers were the main source of
income, making readers the first priority. Advertisements are now the main source of income,
which make ads a priority over readers. Lippmann believed this change represents why people
are unwilling to pay for the truth (Westbrook, 1991, p. 297). Perhaps, if news did not heavily
rely on advertisements, then Public Opinion might have highlighted a neutral view of
democracy. Lippmann would have accepted newspapers that created informed citizens rather
than uninformed citizens. The alternative of having a citizen-run newspaper with revenue from
subscriptions is impossible with the rise of new media that relies on advertising dollars.
A cultural factor of Public Opinion (1922) declares news and truth as two different
concepts: “the function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light
the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other and make a picture of reality on which
men can act” (p. 226). Mass communication, or Lippmann’s “machinery of knowledge,” allows
one to act based on the news rather than the truth. Through new technologies and organizations,
the “machinery of knowledge” produces a continuous reporting style of unseen environments.
Lippmann (1922) states that mass communication is “often done badly, but the fact that it is done
at all shows that it can be done [… and] it can be done better” (p.166). Ideally, news should
report the entire environment while uncovering the unseen and overcoming subjectivism.
Therefore, the definition of news must be broadened to explain all forces behind a particular
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event, not just one force (Knowlton and Parson, 1995, p. 121). Public Opinion affects journalism
by highlighting the importance of truth. The Elements of Journalism (2014) states that “accuracy
is the foundation upon which everything else is built: context, interpretation, debate, and all of
public communication” (Kovach and Rosenstiel, p. 57). Alternatively, if Lippmann did not
discuss truth and news, one would hope journalists still prized reporting the truth to produce an
One can conclude that Lippmann published Public Opinion to respond to institutional,
material, and cultural factors. The institutional factor was the false judgments between
journalism and democracy. The material factor was economic changes and limitations. The
cultural factor was mass communication highlighting the discrepancy between news and truth.
This historical outcome has impacted the way theorists define journalism and its purpose in a
democracy. Lippmann believes journalism is not a useful force in democracy since news focuses
on pseudo-events rather than the unseen environments. Therefore, citizens should be educated
about democracy through the lens of social scientists. A metaphor Lippmann uses to answer the
fundamental question from his work that Daly (2012) describes is “as you go further away from
experience, you go higher up into generalization or subtlety. As you go up in the balloon you
throw more and more concrete objectives overboard, and when you have reached the top […]
you see far and wide, but you see very little” (Daly, 2012, p. 224). Citizens in a democracy see
only very little in a world that is far and wide.
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Bardes, B., and Oldendick, R. W. (2006). Public opinion: measuring the American mind.
Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing.
Bernays, E. (1928). Propaganda. Brooklyn: Ig Publishing.
Bybee, C. R. (1997). Media, public opinion and governance: Burning down the barn to roast the
pig. United Kingdom: University of Leicester.
Daly, C. (2012). Covering America. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.
Gawiser, S., and Witt, E. G. (1994). A journalist’s guide to public opinion polls. Westport:
Knowlton, S. R., and Parson, P. R. (Eds.). (1995). The journalist’s moral compass: Basic
principles. Westport: Praeger Publishers.
Kovach, B. and Rosenstiel, T. (2014). The elements of journalism: What newspeople should
know and the public should expect. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Lippmann, W. (1922). Public opinion. New York: The Free Press.
Schudson, M. (2008). The “Lippmann-Dewedy debate” and the invention of Walter Lippmann as
an anti-democrat 1986-1996. International Journal of Communication, 2, 1-12. doi:
Westbrook, R. B. (1991). John Dewey and American democracy. Ithica: Cornell University