Journalism and Public Opinion

Journalism, as an autopoietic system, established its autonomy in the eighteenth century by separating itself from the political system. In the early years of newspapers, printers simply printed content that powerful gentlemen paid them to print, usually political information to be read by other powerful gentlemen, without editorial comment or narrative framing. This practice insulated printers from interference by political actors, but once the newspapers started editorializing and this practice became normalized, it was too late for political power to stop it. The costs were just too high. As Johannes Weber, in his history of the newspaper, writes,

In its early years [17th century]. . . the new medium of the political press had a low profile: it escaped the attention of the authorities and was left alone, even though by rights it ought to have caused offence in terms of the political ideology of the time. Later, as the newspaper scene expanded and became more varied, and as new titles with different political colourings were established, it became impossible for the authorities to exert rigorous control, let alone suppress newspapers entirely. It is true that from the earliest days of newspapers onwards there were repeated attempts to impose measures of repression and censorship on printers and their publications, but these efforts were powerless to prevent the new medium from winning basic acceptance, and nowhere was there a threat to its existence (404).

Johannes Weber, “Strassburg, 1605: The origins of the newspaper in Europe.” German History 24.3 (2006) pp: 387-412.


A similar process occurred in China. Joan Judge (1994) writes,

Yulun, the character compound the reformists used for “public opinion,” dated back to at least the third century, and had been used throughout Chinese history to describe elite opinion within the bureaucracy. The constitutionalists invested this old term with a new political meaning in the early 1900s, redefining it as the “collective opinion (gonglun) of the common people (yiban renmin) toward government and society” (Ming, 1908). . . . Leading in this effort to empower public opinion was the Shanghai daily newspaper Shibao, one of the most innovative representatives of the late Qing political press . . . Linking print to politics, Shibao was both a molder and a mobilizer of public opinion. (p. 65)

Public opinion may be thought in terms of content, but we must also consider how the medium changed the public’s temporal orientation and how the expectation for news causes tension between journalism and politics. That is to say, the very idea that there should always be something “new” to report on a periodical, typically weekly, basis went against the grain of tradition and authoritarian politics. Thus, it was not just the content, but the periodical medium that changed the attitude of the public (Weber. p. 409). In the European context, by the time objections to editorial comment started to arise, it was too late. The expectation for news had become normalized.

This does not mean journalism became independent of the political system; it simply means that it began to create news from news, as one news story serves as the premise for a subsequent story. Clearly, journalism could not have established itself as a function system without a money-based economy and a political system capable of maintaining some kind of social order. Autonomous political and economic systems came first. Human consciousness as a precondition is needed as well, and news organizations are also necessary to structurally couple journalistic communication to other systems. But the economy, politics, news organizations, and consciousness belong to the environment of the journalism system.


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