Mass media in democratic societies serve three important functions

  • providing an electoral forum for candidates and political parties to debate their qualifications for office before a national audience.
  • Contributing to informed citizenship by providing a variety of perspectives on the important issues of the day (the public sphere function).

Of course, the democratic ideal of fully informed citizens is rarely realized. Ordinary people are preoccupied with their personal affairs and have little time for keeping abreast of public issues. Indeed, most citizens prefer to watch sitcoms or sports. Naturally, the ability of the media to perform the function of keeping the public informed is compromised when citizens are uninterested. The news media cannot be expected to deliver a steady stream of in-depth public affairs programming that no one will watch.

Accordingly, over time, the unrealistic ideal of attentive citizens who scour the media for political information has given way to the notion that democracy can function through "efficient" citizens who either pay attention only to issues of personal importance or rely on a variety of psychological cues, such as a candidate's party affiliation, to compensate for a lack of factual information. A related alternative to the classic ideal of informed citizenship is that citizens do pay attention, but only when the media sound an alarm alerting them to issues that threaten the well-being of society or the nation.

Media Politics (Shanto Iyengar)

It's hard for me to fully understand this whole paragrapgh right above.

I understood this text as,

The news media has a duty to inform citizens of public issues. But as time goes by (people are getting less and less interested in political or public issues), this kind of ideal has changed to the notion that democracy can function through citizens who pay attention to the news only which they think is important for themelselves..? Am I right? But what does it mean by "efficient" here? Is it a sarcastic expression? Why are they "efficient" citizens?

Also, what I don't get is the meaning of 'alternative' here.

it's saying 'a related alternative to the classic ideal' is ~~ in the last sentence, but the following sentence is 'citizens do pay attention only when the media sound an alarm alerting them to issues that threaten the well-being of society or the nation'. It's just what's happeing in the real world (how most of the citizens behave), not an alternative (the media's duty) to the classic ideal. Is this sentence saying(explaining) that this is just what's happening now, or is it literally saying that it's an alternative of the ideal, which means citizens should do so?

  • Did you leave out a bullet point? The text says there are three reasons, but there are only two bullet points.
    – Ringo
    Commented Oct 20, 2017 at 1:22

1 Answer 1


I think you are partially correct. It's not that citizens are becoming less interested over time. What is decreasing over time is the popularity of the idea that people will spend considerable time researching news online to become fully informed. This idea -- the "classic ideal" -- is turning out not to be true. People don't like to spend a lot of time reading different news sources. They might read only what's personally interesting, or they might just believe news that is biased for their party affiliation. (For example, Republican voters might watch only Fox News, and Democrats might watch only CNN.) Or they might support party candidates without knowing much about their positions. They are compensating for lack of facts by just supporting party candidates. (Not very well-written, in my opinion.)

When the author is describing the "related alternative," he is talking about different opinions on how citizens consume news. The main view is the idea that citizens are informed, meaning they will scour the news and make informed decisions (the idea that is not popular anymore). An alternative to this opinion is the idea that citizens only read what's important to them personally and otherwise follow cues like party affiliation (e.g., Democrat vs. Republican). A second alternative is the opinion that citizens do respond to news, but only when it's alarmist.

I must say again that I think this paragraph was very poorly written. I think what the author might have meant to say is that there are three types of citizens: 1) the informed citizen; 2) the partisan citizen; and 3) the citizen who only responds to alarmist news. Also, ten years ago, the media believed most people fell into category 1, which turned out to be untrue.

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