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Who Runs Public OpinionWhile there does exist informed individuals who follow and understand the important social, economic and cultural issues, for the greater part, most citizens pay little attention to the same, and when asked, pull their preferences off the tops of their heads. Since empowerment for interest groups comes from it (i.e. politicians will not be re-elected without public support), there must, therefore, be some mechanism in place for these groups to assess and access public opinion. Given the citizenry's low information threshold, what appears to be public opinion can only be the cultivation, crystallization and communication of individual preferences into one collective mass by special interest groups who provide and control the flow of necessary information in accordance with agenda setting theory.
The strength of an individual's interests and attitudes on the one hand and their policy preferences on the other depends in a large part on the level of information that they possess. Certainly, an informed citizen is a better one when considering the theory and underpinning of the democratic process, as it is understood in this country today. Yet, study after study demonstrates that the majority does not possess the level of information necessary to properly evaluate and assess important political, social and economic issues.
Unquestionably, though, public opinion does exist on issues of varying importance. Once information is made accessible, public debate on the issues can begin. It is through the mechanism of public debate that the less informed receive the information that, at least in the short term, allows them to reach par with the better informed on a particular issue. Heightened levels of information from the media, political groups or even single interest groups should induce and entice those who pay less attention to the issues to become better informed and more able to come to beliefs that can be pulled collectively into what is know as public opinion.
Special interest groups bring issues to the public attention through a mechanism known as agenda setting. According to agenda setting theory, which was developed by Professor Maxwell McCombs and Professor Donald Shaw in a 1968 study at Chapel Hill, Mass media helps to create public opinion by highlighting specific issues. According to the agenda cutting, theory, the media tends to be selective with respect to the stories that it covers and so much of reality is not represented in it. The public judges those stories or items not perceived to be newsworthy by the media irrelevant.
Clearly, in order to form its opinion, the public must have access to information on political, social and economic issues. In our society, special interest groups, in order to stay in power, take the responsibility of controlling the flow of information to the public by setting the public debate through an agenda. Since the public will disregard news items not covered in the press, which itself, reports items according to trends, it is possible for special interest groups to place information in the right time in the right way.
In this manner, the interest groups control, cultivate and crystallize public opinion.
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CESJ is a a Special Interest Group (SIG) of the American Educational Research Association (AERA)