A Case Study of Deliberative Democracy on Television: Civic Dialogue on C-SPAN Call-In Shows

By Kurpius, David D.; Mendelson, Andrew | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

A Case Study of Deliberative Democracy on Television: Civic Dialogue on C-SPAN Call-In Shows


Kurpius, David D., Mendelson, Andrew, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Call-in programs have been specifically designed to give citizens a venue for offering their perceptions on various topics. The purposes of this exploratory study were to examine the extent to which callers brought in new political ideas and incorporated values, solutions, and consequences in their comments and to analyze the reactions of hosts/ guests on C-SPAN's Washington Journal. Content analysis of 225 callers revealed 27 percent of caller-generated topics presented new political information. Callers talked longer when the topic was new rather than old; seldom were values, solutions, or consequences discussed. The results are discussed in relation to Yankelovich's work on public judgment.

Research has shown that television contributes to higher levels of political learning.1 Many have commented that the format of traditional news coverage tends to prevent in-depth thinking.2 The resulting low level of issues coverage reduces opportunity for public deliberation on television. The problem is further exacerbated by marketplace forces that McManus found drove out enterprise and issue coverage in favor of passive news discovery and high profits.3

Since the 1992 presidential election, many scholars have focused on nontraditional news media, primarily television/radio talk shows, as a more direct conduit for issues discussion between candidates and citizens.4 However, these scholars have focused primarily on entertainment/candidate driven talk shows on commercial television and radio.5

C-SPAN, the cable-satellite public affairs network, is one media organization that has yet to be examined. Relatively unaffected by market forces, C-SPAN's unique minimalist model of content packaging and its potential to create a mediated deliberative space provided a research opportunity to examine the level and quality of citizen dialogue on television.

This study is an exploratory case study focusing on how the content of Washington Journal approximates a deliberative space for civic dialogue. On the surface, C-SPAN would appear to be an ideal place where politically engaged people come together to work through public issues. However, no one has asked if it rises to the ideals both C-- SPAN and democratic theorists set forth. To lay the foundation for this research, we will examine literature on the concepts of television and its role in deliberative, nontraditional news formats, and finally, C-SPAN's civic role and its call-in show, Washington Journal.

Literature Review

Media and Deliberation. Page said public deliberation in today's society must be largely mediated.6 Since the majority of Americans use television as their primary news source, creating a mediated deliberative space must include television. Still, others argue that the marketplace plays little role in encouraging democratic debate and decision making.7 Former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley said, "The market acts blindly to sell and make money, never pausing to ask whether it furthers citizenship or decency."8

Faced with challenges of marketplace forces, the question that remains is whether we can imagine political deliberation on television. A number of foundation-funded efforts have imagined the possibility of mediated deliberative dialogue. Friedland's research on The Wisconsin Collaborative Project provided evidence that collaboration among public television stations helped increase the deliberative issues programming.9

Civic journalism built on the collaborative model by encouraging newspaper partnerships with commercial and public television and radio stations. One focus of civic journalism was to reframe coverage to create a deliberative space for citizens.10 One project, Best Practices 2000, funded public and commercial station partnerships to create innovative issue-focused election and political coverage. These efforts are bound together by the limited creation of civic deliberative space on television and the fragility of the efforts once the funding cycle is completed. …

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