Public opinion can play a positive role in policy making | Public Leaders Network | The Guardian
Public opinion - The mass media: Newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet —including e-mail and blogs—are usually less influential than the social. Most information about public opinion generally comes from mass surveys, with the goal of measuring the attitudes of a particular population or group of people. Marcus Hobley sifts through the sometimes troubled relationship. Views on the use and role of public opinion in forming policy can often be as diverse use public opinion to achieve their ministerial set public policy objectives? immigrants; giving succor to racists or targeting journalists and the media.
In countries where important news is suppressed by the government, a great deal of information is transmitted by rumour. Word of mouth or other forms of person-to-person communicationsuch as text messaging thus becomes the vehicle for underground public opinion in totalitarian countries, even though these processes are slower and usually involve fewer people than in countries where the media network is dense and uncontrolled.
Interest groups Interest group s, nongovernmental organization s NGOsreligious groups, and labour unions trade union s cultivate the formation and spread of public opinion on issues of concern to their constituencies.
These groups may be concerned with political, economic, or ideological issues, and most work through the mass media as well as by word of mouth. Some of the larger or more affluent interest groups around the world make use of advertising and public relations. One increasingly popular tactic is the informal poll or straw vote. Multiple votes by supporters are often encouraged, and once the group releases its findings to credible media outlets, it claims legitimacy by citing the publication of its poll in a recognized newspaper or online news source.
Reasons for conducting unscientific polls range from their entertainment value to their usefulness in manipulating public opinion, especially by interest groups or issue-specific organizations, some of which exploit straw-poll results as a means of making their causes appear more significant than they actually are. On any given issue, however, politicians will weigh the relatively disinterested opinions and attitudes of the majority against the committed values of smaller but more-dedicated groups for whom retribution at the ballot box is more likely.
Opinion leaders Opinion leaders play a major role in defining popular issues and in influencing individual opinions regarding them.
Political leaders in particular can turn a relatively unknown problem into a national issue if they decide to call attention to it in the media. One of the ways in which opinion leaders rally opinion and smooth out differences among those who are in basic agreement on a subject is by inventing symbols or coining slogans: Once enunciated, symbols and slogans are frequently kept alive and communicated to large audiences by the mass media and may become the cornerstone of public opinion on any given issue.
Whilst social changes at the level of the current transformation of the welfare system do not require public support, they are certainly facilitated by it, and just as crucially by the elimination of active opposition. This is primarily because governments constantly strive for electoral support. While the interplay of public opinion, policy implementation, and social change is complex, the media can often play a legitimising role.
In the next section, which looks at audience reception of media accounts of climate change, we introduce a further element to our analysis of media and social change: Media Accounts and Changing Public Attitudes and Behaviours [ TOP ] In the Glasgow University Media Group conducted a major research project examining the impact of media coverage of climate change on audience understanding and engagement with climate change.
The climate policy objectives of the current coalition government in the UK revolve around de-carbonisation — a process which is enshrined in law through the Climate Change Act. But climate change is distinctive from other policy issues, such as, for example, the economic policies or welfare cuts already discussed, in that their success or failure lies to a significant degree with public participation, which goes way beyond attitudinal support of the policies.
Patterns in attitudes and belief need to be accompanied by the adoption of new behavioural patterns — and it is in these that social change will ultimately take place. There are a range of factors which have contributed to the shape of current reporting of climate change, which has been routinely criticised for its lack of clarity on the basic scientific arguments. There is evidence that there are powerful and well-resourced bodies operating to systematically undermine accurate media reporting in this area as part of the wider spread of climate scepticism.
In Februaryit was revealed by The Guardian that an anti-renewables media campaign was funded by secretive trusts linked to wealthy US and UK business people Goldenberg, The trusts have financed organisations which either dismiss climate science or downplay the need to take action. They have invested millions of dollars over the past decade in contrarian think tanks and activists to spread scepticism, and increasingly a part of this is the anti-renewables rhetoric.
As a result news reporting is increasingly shaped by this construction of polarisation and conflict, with the media, rather than the scientists, or even the politicians, setting the terms of the debate, meaning that the key scientific arguments upon which policy is based are constantly undermined.
In addition to the polarised nature of coverage, since an equal if not greater problem is that the level of global and national media coverage has suffered a sharp decline Fischer,reflecting a re-ordering of the political priorities since the economic crash.
Mass Media and the Policy Process - Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics
This in turn affects media priorities, since politicians have a key role in setting agendas and highlighting issues for discussion. In previous work, we have shown the conditions under which new information is produced.
The link between smoking and cancer has also clearly produced substantial behavioural change. But there are also examples in which new information does not produce such changes. Our aim was to establish why new messages vary in their effects, and to identify the possible triggers for potential behavioural change.
With this aim we developed methods which involved immersing our participants in a new information environment which we constructed. We conducted a series of focus groups across the UK, recruited on normal socio-demographic criteria. All of the materials represented in differing forms and from differing perspectives three future scenarios which were developed through detailed research and consultation with experts in the related scientific field. The first scenario documented a mass flood in Bangladesh that leads to loss of land and the forced migration of millions of the population.
Migrants initially journeyed to India but were turned away by border control agents and are eventually picked up in the Bay of Bengal by ferries chartered by the international community. Many disperse to areas in Europe and it is reported thatare due to port in the UK city of Southampton where protestors are demonstrating against their arrival. The second scenario focused on the local effects of climate change.
The flood forces thousands from their homes and businesses and the report included predictions about the long-term implications for the Scottish economy. We set out initially to investigate the way in which audiences negotiate the coverage — a key element of this was the way in which they assess the credibility of sources and attribute trust. However, whilst the scientists themselves were trusted, the science itself was seen to be largely theoretical rather than evidence-based and therefore difficult to prove, as this exchange shows: So did you have any doubt about the science of it then?
If you read National Geographic, was it possible to predict these things at all? You read into it what you want.
- The Role of the Media in the Construction of Public Belief and Social Change
- Public Opinion and the Media
- The Mass Media and the Policy Process
So you think the scientific predictions are a bit dodgy? Well, they do contradict each other. It just swaps about. High-income group, Crowborough There was a sense that the evidence could be easily manipulated to present different arguments, and promote different agendas. One of the groups thought to be engaged in presenting agenda-led information were the politicians — this related to not only the fact that politicians were one of the main groups speaking on the issue much more than the scientists themselves but that public trust in them was very low.
This left audiences with no clear idea of who to believe on this subject, and combined with a strong feeling of general powerlessness about this as well as other issues in public life. In spite of general sympathy towards the issue and a recognition of its importance, the overall picture of current audience reception was therefore one of confusion, cynicism and distrust about public communications.
On the subject of changing individual behaviours, beyond the adoption of recycling, most people had not made conscious changes due to their concerns about climate change. Again this was in spite of a strong awareness of the importance of doing so.
Whilst cost and convenience were cited as reasons for not making changes, the sense of powerlessness, that individuals cannot make a difference and that, at the level of policy, those in charge could not be trusted to make decisions for the greater good, also played a role in this disengagement. To compound this the current dip in media attention to the subject was also found to be having an impact — overwhelmingly people felt it was less a pressing subject than it had been in the past, and, for most, the economic recovery was a greater priority, with ethical concerns characterised as a luxury for more prosperous times.
Having established their views and levels of engagement to climate change, we then introduced the new information in the form of our constructed television reports and newspaper articles.
The Bangladesh refugee story had a particularly strong impact. The main reason for the greater concern and urgency was that this scenario tapped into existing worries about issues such as immigration, and the scarcity of resources such as employment and housing.
The reports highlighted to participants the potential personal consequences of climate change and substantially enhanced concern. Once they saw that the science is solidly based, and the potential consequences are real and severe, they saw more clearly that action has to be taken. The aims of taking action — as well as the risks of not doing so — became clear. To assess the extent of attitudinal change we asked participants to state how important climate change was to them on a scale of 1 to 10 both before the new information and after the new information was introduced.
This is a substantial increase, and provides evidence of genuine attitudinal change in response to the scenarios. It reflects the potential for new information to impact on attitudes in the short-term. However, when we asked about the impact of this increased concern upon their position on ethical behaviours, we found a marked lack of commitment to behavioural change. Again, most people saw the importance of behavioural change, but the original reasons for disengagement were widely repeated: The longitudinal findings — which were based on follow-up interviews with half the original sample six months later — confirmed that the majority had not made changes to their behaviour.
But media accounts — and the related conflicts in understanding — also played a role. The sense of not knowing who or what to trust in terms of the most effective course of action, rooted in the proliferation of media opinions and arguments, continued to be cited as a significant barrier to action.
Public opinion can play a positive role in policy making
Also important was the belief that climate change was no longer a priority issue. In spite of these barriers, however, in our longer-term research we did actually find a sizable minority who changed their behaviour in response to the information that they received.
It was notable that those who had made the greatest changes included participants for whom at least one of the scenarios had a considerable impact. An Asian bakery owner, for example, believed that the Bangladesh scenario threatened her security and that of her own community and the concern it generated had become deep-rooted in the preceding six months.
Further, there was, in the majority of groups, a clear sense that decisive action was important and would have to be taken.
There was an acceptance, for example, that air travel might have to be curbed or made more expensive. Such action would have to be initiated at government level. It seems likely that if a clear lead was given then the public would, however grudgingly, accept it. This actually reflects the history of public acceptance of legislation on issues such as wearing seat belts in cars or motor cycle crash helmets, but this does require organised collective action.
In our study, individual decisions to change were not seen as especially effective. Commitments to behavioural change quickly evaporate if it is not felt that the broader support and participation is there.
In the longer term, a willingness to engage with these issues can quickly translate into increased frustration if good intentions are unrealisable due to a lack of opportunity — for example, it is difficult to commit to cycling to work every day, without the protection of a network of cycle lanes. The Importance of Repeated Exposure to Media Messages [ TOP ] The longitudinal element of the climate change research also allowed us to look more closely at the role that the media play in the negotiations of beliefs and associated behaviours through the recurrence and reinforcement of particular messages.
Across the interviews, we found a relationship between the prior exposure to information, often related to strength of attitude, on the subject and the degree to which the information impacted on beliefs and opinions. Those who had been least exposed to either subject were most open to adjusting their views and conversely those who arrived at the groups with most exposure were least likely to have their opinions changed by the new information.
The Britain report is an example of a piece of research that encapsulates the nation's mindset.Panel Discussion :: Relationship Goals (Part 5)
The Cabinet Office is seeking new ways to involve the public in policy formation in both the transparency and open data agendas — which allow us to see exactly where every penny of our taxes is going and opens up the space for political and public debate on previously untouchables areas of state expenditure. Areas such as benefits reform at the Department of Work and Pensions including free TV licences, winter fuel allowance, free bus passes could all be up for discussion.
This would have been thinking the unthinkable in the past. Public opinion could also help set the pace of reform. To overcome frustrations around the lengthy timetable required to implement reform, why not allow policy to be timetabled to align with public opinion? Therein lies the momentum and impetus to accelerate the speed at which the aptly labelled dead hand of the state implements policy. The findings from Britain depict a generation whose view of the state is highly contrasted to views held by their parents and grandparents.
Broadly speaking, the report found a differing view between the generations about what the state should or should not be doing.