Based on a session of the Fifth annual conference on public opinion research, sponsored by the Am. association for public opinion research and the World association for public opinion research, Lake Forest, Ill., June 15-20, 1950.
Discussed are the kinds of information needed to clarify the role of mass media as channels of communication under varying conditions. This role will be a function of their availability and distribution within an area, which raises two questions: (1) the relation between accessibility and exposure, & (2) the restrictions on accessibility and resistance to exposure in various countries. Restricted accessibility may lead to innovations in distributions such as public listening to radios in Turkish coffee houses, wired radio, and newspaper reading to small groups. This may lead to restrictions on the character of exposure, reducing the number of possible interpretations. Comparative studies of accessibility and exposure need to be supplemented by inquiries into the attitudes which people have toward particular media. Since the content of mass media is often transmitted to people unexposed to the media, the role of informal channels must be studied. The relative importance of different channels is determined by accessibility and by content of material being communicated. Research designs should distinguish people for whom communications perform different functions, e.g., within the same primary group, those who experience greater exposure and use this to develop leadership positions. In areas relying largely on oral channels, different kinds of news are likely to have higher currency than in areas well covered by mass media. Inaccessibility of daily news may lead to certain types being assigned a more enduring value and regarded as still worth learning about weeks later. As more news filters in, the traditional communication structure of many communities is likely to undergo continuous change. It is suggested that interdisciplinary cooperation in the study of comparative communication will increase knowledge of communications as well as individual disciplines. R. S. Halpern.
The role of public opinion in the political process is more often justified than explained by political theorists. Insofar as contemporary theory offers an explanation, it replaces the primitive democratic notion of "The People as Legislator" with a neo-idealistic conception of public opinion as the "sense of the community" (A. D. Lindsay), an emergent product of the process of public discussion that enfolds the struggle of private group leaders, public administrators, and political representatives to influence the substance and direction of governmental policy.However, this is not the meaning of the term as used either by the man in the street or by the social scientist. In both popular and scientific language "public opinion" has come to refer to a sort of secular idol, and is a "god-term" to which citizens, scientists, and office-holders alike pay allegiance, partly as an act of faith, partly as a matter of observation, partly as a condition of sanity. The public opinion idol has its high priests, claiming to be expert translators of the oracles of the personified deity. The idol aIso has its heretics, divided like all protestants into many denominations. The least heretical sect, perhaps, consists of those who postulate a conceptual fiction somewhat resembling the legal relation of "principal-and-agent," except that they recognize that political representatives possess the power to act as trustees as well as agents of their amorphous principal.