For representational democracy to work, we need to trust people to make informed decisions at the polls, so that we can hold politicians accountable to the real interests of their constituents

Salience principles for democracy

By Susanna Siegel

“Salience principle of importance”: idea that the press should make clearly available info that the public needs to know for democracy to work

By default, political consciousness stays in the background of consciousness (Lippmann revers to these people as ‘deaf spectators’). Politics can become salient through elections, contact with the government (e.g. jury duty, drivers license, or a ‘brush’ with the law)

John Rawls: “In a well-governed state only a small fraction of persons may devote much of their time to politics”

As such, Lipmann suggests we need to bridge by means of mass communication. Journalists then, are the epistemic bridges between government and the public. The Importance principle is that we should “make salient information that is important for the public to know about.” Define newsworthiness as whatever is actually important for the public to know about

To make something salient is to put it forward as both demanding attention and deserving it. In can be distinct from actual uptake (as the receiving end can experience it as demanding of attention but not classify it as deserving it)

However, this just demonstrates the problem of democratic attention. The library is full of good books, and the sad fact is that none of us will ever read them all.

This arises from a combination of three points

  1. Professional journalism is governed by an importance principle of salience
  2. If journalism fulfilled the importance principle, some roles would depend on readers taking in information made salient by journalism
  3. For much important information, many readers have no interest in it, feel no prior motivation to learn it, and face substantial obstacles to paying attention to information even when it is widely available, and even when it would yield knowledge that would be useful to have

The problematic upshot is that democracy imposes an attentional demand that can’t easily be met

Representative democracy relies on a population with stable, well-formed opinions about public policy who are disposed to select representatives ready to respect their preferences. However, important news is often not sensational.

Social media platforms on the other hand highlight content that captures user attention (maximizes occurrent engagement). Markers of virality are not co-extensive with information that is important for the public to know about

Good reporting then follows a public-as-protagonist principle

  • ”recommends framing and selecting information to invite readers to view themselves and one another as potential political participants”
  • Stories should make explicit when it can the ways in which the reading public has a stake in how the story unfolds and how the reader can affect its outcome
    • Not every reader will be a potential protagonist in every story. However, every regular reader is likely to encounter a story in which they feel addressed as a potential protagonist eventually
  • Underlying belief that there are many publics (see: plurality)