Public Opinion, the Press, and Public Policy

By J. David Kennamer | Go to book overview

1
Public Opinion, the Press, and Public Policy: An Introduction

J. David Kennamer

As the techniques of scientific assessment of public opinion have become better understood and more readily available, the measurement of, discussion about, and interest in public opinion in American life have become incessant. Because public opinion has become a category of news and a focus of journalistic competition, the news-consuming public is constantly informed of everything from its opinions on foreign trade policy to its preference for dogs or cats.

Much of this interest could be described as a sort of collective narcissism, and this may explain at least some of the journalistic interest in public opinion, or at least in the results of polls. But normative democratic theory calls for a much more serious role for public opinion-it is supposed to have something to do with the formation of public policy. Luttbeg ( 1974) notes, "Most persons would only be satisfied with a democracy which at least gave some expression to public wants in the policies enacted" (p. 1). Bernard Cohen ( 1973) has noted that this extraordinarily powerful normative view of the role of public opinion in governance leads to "a mechanical assumption that the public rules or at least participates in policy making, and to a readiness to assert the assumption as unquestioned fact" (p. 20). When one assumes something, one sees no reason to study it, and this of course does not lead to an explication of how such influence works and certainly allows no possibility for the discovery that perhaps it doesn't work. In this

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