The concept of a ‘public sphere’ was penned by Jurgen Habermas as a “place for citizens to debate about common concerns” (Carlisle, 2013). It is a place that is independent from state, the economy and is democratic. When this concept first arose it was only the “elite” or those of a higher social class what were able to participate. It also tended to exclude women and other minorities. However, the public sphere is now greatly mediated as people from all aspects of society are able to have input and debate on issues through the media as well as using it to provoke debate.
Television shows such as ‘Q and A’ and ‘Big Brother’ are both examples of a mediated public sphere. Whilst seemingly different, they get the audience to think about the state of society. ‘Q and A’ tends to appear to be a more sophisticated show than that of ‘Big Brother’ due to the topics broached such as gay marriage, economics, feminism, etc. and the fact it is aired on a government funded channel (Turnbull, 2015). However, ‘Big Brother’ has also provoked debate on gender, sexual identity, ageism and cultural differences. The attitude toward different shows is different. Though, has the public sphere been divided by class or gender? High culture versus pop culture. Serious versus trivial. Commercial or non-commercial. The media has the power to instigate a public debate on issues but it can be the public’s views on these issues that deem who can be heard, who can’t be heard and who can participate.
A great example is the Salvation Army’s domestic violence campaign in response to the trivial nature of the blue/black or white/gold dress viral phenomenon. It picture a woman wearing the infamous dress, however the women is clearly heavily bruised. The caption, “why is it so hard to see black and blue” is confronting and reminds the reader that the issue of the colour of the dress greatly trivialised the more important issue of domestic violence and violence against women (Visentin, 2015). It highlights that the public sphere is powerful and has the ability to bring the world together in discussion but can overlook pressing issues that never truly go away, unlike the dress that had 5 minutes of fame. The Salvation Army was able to capitalise on the attention the dress was receiving to push a more important message.
It becomes clear from an example like this that mass media has trivialised the important issues and commercialised the more irrelevant “issues”. Whilst the accessibility to the media allows great discussion on more topics by more people, it shows that there is a clear divide in who can participate, who is excluded and whose voices aren’t heard. The power of the masses outweigh the little guy. It has detoured from the effect the media has on people but rather what are the people doing with that media and what message are they construed. It all plays back into semiotics.
Carlisle, E. (2015). Problematic Practice of Public Sphere Theory. [online] Academia.edu. Available at: http://www.academia.edu/5305277/_Questions_and_Answers_or_More_Confusion_Q_and_A_and_the_Problematic_Practice_of_Public_Sphere_Theory_ [Accessed 1 Apr. 2015].
Turnbull, S. (2015). Media Effects.
Visentin, L. (2015). Why is it so hard to see black and blue?. [online] The Sydney Morning Herald. Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/world/why-so-hard-to-see-black-and-blue-thedress-used-in-domestic-violence-campaign-20150307-13xrz0.html [Accessed 1 Apr. 2015].