Study Abroad and Exchanges



MCH2087 : Media, Democracy and the Public Sphere

Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


This module aims to extend and deepen the critical, contextual and theoretical understanding of students developed at level 4 in particular relation to the role of the media, as both technology and institution, in contributing to democracy, free speech and self expression - as well at its role in constraining and manipulating such freedoms. The module will pay particular attention to the concept of the public sphere, as developed by thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt and Nancy Fraser, looking at both its historical evolution as rooted in ancient democracy, liberal thought of the 19th century as well as its centrality to contemporary mass and social media. This exploration will include an address to the power of political communication and ‘spin’ in shaping the agendas of the public sphere, as well as the potential for alternative or ‘counter-publics’ to resist dominant political agendas and perspectives.

The module will also explore the importance of capitalist political economy in ‘colonising’ the public sphere, for example in the power of commodification of media systems, the challenge to public service broadcasting, the role of advertising in shaping editorial content and the challenge that the Internet has produced in distinguishing between editorial, advertising and ‘spin’. It will also reflect on the potential for the internet to foster new forms of public though citizen journalism and other forms of ‘witnessing’ to produce alternatives to the main stream ‘agenda-setting’ media.

Students will be encouraged to critically reflect on their own consumption of media, in particular news and current affairs, and explore ways in which their own understanding of the world and their relationship to both formal and informal politics has been shaped, as well as relating this back to the theories studied on the module and their ongoing significance for checking the power of media by the polity. These aims will be examined in the assessments for the module, firstly in the form of a comparative news analysis, and secondly in a more theoretically and conceptually oriented longer form essay.

Outline Of Syllabus

The connections between communication, media and democracy

Free speech and the history of media

The public sphere as a normative concept and empirical category

The public sphere as cultural field

The history of the public sphere the increasing importance of mediation

The political economy of the public sphere: the colonisation thesis

Controversies in the concept of the public sphere: exclusions of gender, class and race

Arguments against liberal democracy and the normative role of the media in supporting it

Counter-publics and alternative media

The role of the Internet and digital technology in continuing democratic change

Threats to democracy and freedom of speech

Struggles over control of the news agenda, new forms of control in a digital society

Case studies illustrating and exploring contestations in the public sphere

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion150:0050:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture92:0018:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading1111:00111:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching33:009:00Screenings
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching121:0012:00Seminars
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

This module allows students to bring together the study of contemporary theories of the media and public sphere with current events; the lectures will aim to provide the backbone of the theoretical material, introducing key concepts, approaches, theorists and readings – as well as connecting these to current affairs. The seminars with provide the opportunity for students to reflect on this material and develop their own positions and perspectives, the seminars will entail a mixture of group led work, tutor led discussions and an opportunity for students to bring in pertinent material to stimulate debates, for example newspaper clippings, video or internet based materials. This will contribute directly to the 1500 word case study, which will be a comparative news analysis. The three screenings will provide the opportunity to view full-length documentaries on contemporary themes, aimed to illustrate both good practice in public debates and reporting, as well as provide stimulus for seminar discussion and a connection to the theoretical framework. These documentaries will vary to reflect relevant and current themes, for example recent documentaries on Edward Snowdon, Wikileaks and ‘The Pirate Bay’ are examples of work that is pertinent as commentaries on the health of the public sphere, but also active interventions in the public sphere.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Case study1A401500 words
Essay1A602500 words
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

The assessment methods offer the opportunity for students to explore the main themes in the module’s syllabus in both a reflective and applied way. Firstly the essay is designed in order to allow students to reflect on the critical and social theories that animate debates over the public sphere in media and cultural studies, and to develop and express nuanced arguments and synthesise ideas. Secondly the case study, which will take the form of a news analysis, allows the students to focus specifically on current affairs and the power of the news to shape the presentation and perception of events in the public realm, and for them to apply their critical tools to challenging ‘common sense’ interpretations of the news.

Reading Lists