The Voting Audience

How to Cite

Mullins, K. (2008). The Voting Audience. M/C Journal, 10(6).
Vol. 10 No. 6 (2008): 'vote/citizen'
Published 2008-04-01

Political activity is expected to be of interest to a knowledgeable electorate, citizenry or ‘public’. Performance and entertainment have, on the other hand, been considered the domain of the ‘audience’. The line between active electorate and passive audience has been continually blurred, and as more political communication is designed along the lines of entertainment, the less likely it seems that the distinction will become clearer any time soon. The following article will attempt to thoroughly evaluate the contemporary implications of terms related to ‘public’ and ‘audience’, and to suggest a path forward in understanding the now intertwined roles of these two entities.

In political commentary of all kinds, the term ‘audience’ has come to be regularly used in place of the more traditionally political terms ‘public’, ‘electorate’, ‘constituency’ or even ‘mass’, ‘mob’ and ‘multitude’. (Bratich 249) This slight alteration of language would seem to suggest an ongoing, and occasionally unintentional debate as to whether or not our increasingly mediated society has become incapable of true political discourse – an audience to be courted and won solely on the basis of visual and aural stimulation. In some instances, the debate goes unacknowledged, with authors using the term interchangeably with that of voter or public. Others seem to be making a more definite statement, as do the authors of Campaign Craft, wherein the term ‘audience’ is often used to refer to the voting population. (Shea and Burton) In either case, it is clear that the ‘public’ and the ‘audience’ are no longer to be considered two entirely separate entities.

To understand the significance of this shift, it is necessary to identify the traditional distinctions of these sometimes problematic terms. To do so we must look briefly at how the original and contemporary meanings have developed.

Herbert Blau writes that “audiences, such as they are, are nothing like a public, certainly nothing like the capitalised Public of another time” (Blau 22). That “capitalised Public” he refers to is perhaps the ideal state envisioned by Greek and Roman philosophers in which the community, as a whole, is maintained by and for its own members, and each individual plays a significant and specific role in its maintenance. The “audiences”, however, can be popularly defined as “the assembled spectators or listeners at a public event such as a play, film, concert, or meeting” or “the people giving attention to something”. (Soanes & Stevenson) The difference is subtle but significant. The public is expected to take some active interest in its own maintenance and growth, while the audience is not expected to offer action, just attention.

The authors of Soundbite Culture, who would seem to see the blurring between audience and public as a negative side effect of mass media, offer this description of the differences between these two entities:

Audiences are talked to; publics are talked with. Audiences are entertained; publics are engaged. Audiences live in the moment; publics have both memory and dreams. Audiences have opinions, publics have thoughts. (Slayden & Whillock 7)

A ‘public’ is joined by more than their attendance at or attention to a single performance and responsible for more than just the experience of that performance. While an audience is expected to do little more than consume the performance before them, a public must respond to an experience with appropriate action. A public is a community, bound together by activity and mutual concerns. An audience is joined together only by their mutual interest in, or presence at, a performance.

Carpini and Williams note that the term ‘public’ is no longer an adequate way to describe the complex levels of interaction that form contemporary political discourse: “people, politics, and the media are far more complex than this. Individuals are simultaneously citizens, consumers, audiences…and so forth” (Carpini & Williams in Bennett & Entman 161).

Marshall sees the audience as both a derivative of and a factor in the larger, more political popular body called the “masses”. These masses define the population largely as an unorganised political power, while audiences emerge in relation to consumer products, as rationalised and therefore somewhat subdued categories within that scope. He notes that although the audience, in the twentieth century, has emerged as a “social category” of its own, it has developed as such in relation to both the unharnessed political power of the masses and the active political power of the public (Marshall 61-70). The audience, then, can be said to be a separate but overlapping state that rationalises and segments the potential of the masses, but also informs the subsequent actions of the public. An audience without some degree of action or involvement is not a public.

Such a definition provides important insights into the debate from the perspective of political communication. The cohesiveness of the group that is to define the public can be undermined by mass media. It has been argued that mass media, in particular the internet, have removed all sense of local community and instead provided an information outlet that denies individual response. (Franklin 23; Postman 67-69) It can certainly be argued that with media available on such an instant and individual basis, the necessity of group gathering for information and action has been greatly reduced. Thus, one of the primary functions of the public is eliminated, that of joining together for information. This lack of communal information gathering can eliminate the most important functions of the public: debate and personal action. Those who tune-in to national broadcasts or even read national newspapers to receive political information are generally not invited to debate and pose solutions to the problems that are introduced to them, or to take immediate steps to resolve the conflicts addressed. Instead, they are asked only to fulfill that traditional function of the audience, to receive the information and either absorb or dismiss it.

Media also blur the audience/public divide by making it necessary to change the means of political communication. Previous to the advent of mass media, political communication was separated from entertainment by its emphasis on debate and information. Television has led a turn toward more ‘emotion’ and image-based campaigning both for election and for support of a particular political agenda. This subsequently implies that this public has increasingly become primarily an audience.

Although this attitude is one that has been adopted by many critics and observers, it is not entirely correct to say that there are no longer any opportunities for the audience to regain their function as a public. On a local level, town hall meetings, public consultations and rallies still exist and provide an opportunity for concerned citizens to voice their opinions and assist in forming local policy. Media, often accused of orchestrating the elimination of the active public, occasionally provide opportunities for more traditional public debate. In both Canada and the US, leaders are invited to participate in ‘town hall’ style television debates in which audience members are invited to ask questions. In the UK, both print media and television tend to offer opportunities for leaders to respond to the questions and concerns of individuals. Many newspapers publish responses and letters from many different readers, allowing for public debate and interaction. (McNair 13) In addition, newspapers such as The Washington Post and The Globe and Mail operate Websites that allow the public to comment on articles published in the paper text.

In Canada, radio is often used as a forum for public debate and comment. The Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s Cross Country Check Up and Cross Talk allows mediated debate between citizens across the country. Regional stations offer similar programming. Local television news programmes often include ‘person on the street’ interviews on current issues and opportunities for the audience to voice their arguments on-air. Of course, in most of these instances, the information received from the audience is moderated, and shared selectively. This does not, however, negate the fact that there is interaction between that audience and the media.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to traditional interpretations of media-audience response is the proliferation of the internet. As McNair observes, “the emergence of the internet has provided new opportunities for public participation in political debate, such as blogging and ‘citizen journalism’. Websites such as YouTube permit marginal political groups to make statements with global reach” (McNair 13). These ‘inter-networks’ not only provide alternative information for audiences to seek out, but also give audience members the ability to respond to any communication in an immediate and public way. Therefore, the audience member can exert potentially wide reaching influence on the public agenda and dialogue, clearly altering the accept-or-refuse model often applied to mediated communication.

Opinion polls provide us with an opportunity to verify this shift away from the ‘hypodermic needle’ approach to communication theory (Sanderson King 61). Just as an audience can be responsible for the success of a theatre or television show based on attendance or viewing numbers, so too have public opinion polls been designed to measure, without nuance, only whether the audience accepts or dismisses what is presented to them through the media. There is little place for any measure of actual thought or opinion. The first indications of an upset in this balance resulted in tremendous surprise, as was the case during the US Clinton/Lewinsky scandal (Lawrence & Bennett 425). Stephanopoulos writes that after a full year of coverage of the Monica Lewinsky ‘scandal’, Clinton’s public approval poll numbers were “higher than ever” while the Republican leaders who had initiated the inquiry were suffering from a serious lack of public support (Stephanopoulos 442).

Carpini and Williams also observed that public opinion polls taken during the media frenzy showed very little change of any kind, although the movement that did occur was in the direction of increased support for Clinton. This was in direct contrast to what “…traditional agenda-setting, framing, and priming theory would predict” (Carpini & Williams in Bennett & Entman 177). Zaller confirms that the expectation among news organisations, journalists, and political scientists was never realised; despite being cast by the media in a negative role, and despite the consumption of that negative media, the audience refused to judge the President solely on his framed persona (Zaller in Bennett & Entman 255).

It was clear that the majority of the population in the US, and in other countries, were exposed to the information regarding the Clinton scandal. At the height of the scandal, it was almost unavoidable (Zaller in Bennett & Entman 254). Therefore it cannot be said that the information the media provided was not being consumed. Rather, the audience did not agree with the media’s attempts to persuade them, and communicated this through opinion polls, creating something resembling a mass political dialogue. As Lawrence and Bennett discuss in their article regarding the Lewinsky/Clinton public opinion “phenomenon”, it should not be assumed by polling institutions or public opinion watchers that the projected angle of the media will be immediately adopted by the public (Lawerence & Bennett 425). Although the media presented a preferred reading of the text, it could not ensure that the audience would interpret that meaning (Hall in Curran, Gurevitch & Harris 343). The audience’s decoding of the media’s message would have to depend on each audience member’s personal experiences and their impression of the media that was presenting the communication.

This kind of response is, in fact, encouraging. If the audience relies on mainstream media to provide a frame and context to all political communication, then they are giving up their civic responsibility and placing complete authority in the hands of those actively involved in the process of communicating events. It could be suggested that the reported increase in the perceived reliabilty of internet news sources (Kinsella 251) can be at least partially attributed to the audience’s increasing awareness of these frames and limitations on mainstream media presentation. With the increase in ‘backstage’ reporting, the audience has become hyper-aware of the use of these strategies in communications. The audience is now using its knowledge and media access to decipher information, as it is presented to them, for authenticity and context.

While there are those who would lament the fact that the community driven public is largely in the past and focus their attention on finding ways to see the old methods of communication revived, others argue that the way to move forward is not to regret the existence of an audience, but to alter our ideas about how to understand it. It has been suggested that in order to become a more democratic society we must now “re-conceive audiences as citizens” (Golding in Ferguson 98). And despite Blau’s pronouncement that audiences are “nothing like a public”, he later points out that there is still the possibility of unity even in the most diverse of audiences. “The presence of an audience is in itself a sign of coherence”(Blau 23).

As Rothenbuhler writes:

There is too much casualness in the use of the word spectator…A spectator is almost never simply looking at something. On the contrary, most forms of spectatorship are socially prescribed and performed roles and forms of communication…the spectator, then, is not simply a viewer but a participant in a larger system. (Rothenbuhler 65)

We cannot regress to a time when audiences are reserved for the theatre and publics for civic matters. In a highly networked world that relies on communicating via the methods and media of entertainment, it is impossible to remove the role of the audience member from the role of citizen. This does not necessarily need to be a negative aspect of democracy, but instead a step in its constant evolution. There are positive aspects to the audience/public as well as potential negatives.

McNair equates the increase in mediated communication with an increase in political knowledge and involvement, particularly for those on the margins of society who are unlikely to be exposed to national political activity in person. He notes that the advent of television may have limited political discourse to a media-friendly sound bite, but that it still increases the information dispensed to the majority of the population. Despite the ideals of democracy, the majority of the voting population is not extremely well informed as to political issues, and prior to the advent of mass media, were very unlikely to have an opportunity to become immersed in the details of policy. Media have increased the amount of political information the average citizen will be exposed to in their lifetime (McNair 41).

With this in mind, it is possible to equate the faults of mass media not with their continued growth, but with society’s inability to recognise the effects of the media as technologies and to adjust education accordingly. While the quality of information and understanding regarding the actions and ideals of national political leaders may be disputed, the fact that they are more widely distributed than ever before is not. They have an audience at all times, and though that audience may receive information via a filtered medium, they are still present and active. As McNair notes, if the purpose of democracy is to increase the number of people participating in the political process, then mass media have clearly served to promote the democratic ideal (McNair 204).

However, these positives are qualified by the fact that audiences must also possess the skills, the interests and the knowledge of a public, or else risk isolation that limits their power to contribute to public discourse in a meaningful way. The need for an accountable, educated audience has not gone unnoticed throughout the history of mass media. Cultural observers such as Postman, McLuhan, John Kennedy, and even Pope Pius XII have cited the need for education in media. As McLuhan aptly noted, “to the student of media, it is difficult to explain the human indifference to the social effect of these radical forces”(McLuhan 304).

In 1964, McLuhan wrote that, “education will become recognised as civil defence against media fallout. The only medium for which our education now offers some civil defence is the print medium”(McLuhan 305). Unfortunately, it is only gradually and usually at an advanced level of higher education that the study and analysis of media has developed to any degree. The mass audiences, those who control the powers of the public, often remain formally uneducated as to the influence that the mediating factors of television have on the distribution of information. Although the audience may have developed a level of sophistication in their awareness of media frames, the public has not been taught how to translate this awareness into any real political or social understanding. The result is a community susceptible to being overtaken by manipulations of any medium.

Those who attempt to convey political messages have only added to that confusion by being unclear as to whether or not they are attempting to address an audience or engage a public. In some instances, politicians and their teams focus their sole attention on the public, not taking into consideration the necessities of communicating with an audience, often to the detriment of political success. On the other hand, some focus their attentions on attracting and maintaining an audience, often to the detriment of the political process. This confusion may be a symptom of the mixed messages regarding the appropriate attitude toward performance that is generated by western culture. In an environment where open attention to performance is both demanded and distained, communication choices can be difficult. Instead we are likely to blindly observe the steady increase in the entertainment style packaging of our national politics. Until the audience fully incorporates itself with the public, we will see an absence of action, and excess of confused consumption (Kraus 18).

Contemporary society has moved far beyond the traditional concepts of exclusive audience or public domains, and yet we have not fully articulated or defined what this change in structure really means. Although this review does suggest that contemporary citizens are both audience and public simultaneously, it is also clear that further discussion needs to occur before either of those roles can be fully understood in a contemporary communications context.

Author Biography

Kimberley Mullins