Remarks presented at the symposium “Öffentliche Meinung — Theorie, Metoden, Befunde” in honor of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann held at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, Mainz, on January 22, 1992 published as ”Medien, Ideologie und Schweigespirale” in Jürgen Wilke XE "Wilke, J"  (editor), Öffentliche Meinung. Teorien, Metoden, Befunde, Freiburg/München: Verlag Karl Alber, 1992, pp 51-75. This English version has Copyright Ó 1997 City University Press and Hans L Zetterberg.

Media, Ideology, and the Spiral of Silence

By Hans L Zetterberg

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann has been a journalist, an opinion pollster, a market researcher, an adviser to statesmen, and a university professor. She has built institutions such as the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach and the Institut für Publizistik in Mainz. She has made lasting contributions to social science, most notably the theory of the spiral of silence [1]. To those of us who have tampered in similar areas she is an inspiration. To me personally she has demonstrated that it is possible to live a richer and fuller life in the service of reason and knowledge, and do it in a broader way than is conceived by the confines of an academic discipline — and still make top-level contributions in every undertaking.

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann  has a full view of society. Max Weber "institutional realms," Lebensordnungen, (life-orders) and Wertsphären (value-spheres) and they seem to constitute his full view of society.[2] They are the economic, political, intellectual (scientific), religious, familial, and erotic life-orders and spheres of life-activity and value, each with Eigengesetzlichkeit, XE "Eigengesetzlichkeit"  that is, an internal and lawful autonomy. We cope rentlessly with them through our manipulations and escapes and above all by the never ending process of rationalization. In the Allensbach archives you find studies on topics from all these life-orders. I do not think that other academics ever can understand the excitements and insights of a pollster XE "pollsters:everyday experience"  who week after week sees new analyses of interviews from all these life-orders and value-spheres grow and pass across his or her desk. Noelle-Neumann  knows.

Mighty media

Weber thought that the bureaucracies and the markets more than other structures shape the modern society. Had he lived today he might have added the mass media as a third co-author of our destiny. There are many reasons to include the media among the dominant institutions.

Mass-media influence has long been a much-favored topic of discussion. At the birth of any new medium, be it the press, radio, or television, most people seem to assume that it will exert an immense and direct influence on citizens’ opinions and conduct. Book-printing was called the “heavenly art” by the early Protestants, since it had enabled Luther  to spread his doctrines and print a German Bible. But printing — that is, duplicating text — is an instrument that may also be used by the opponent in a dispute. It was not long before printing was used just as effectively by Ignatius Loyola as by Martin Luther.

Voltaire claimed that the printed word exerted no influence at all on history. The Protestants’ victory in the Reformation, he thought, was due more to decisions taken by the German princes than to all the printed matter produced by the reformers. It was the sword, not the pen, that shaped history. Perhaps he propounded this thesis of the impotence of words largely in order to show that it was a ridiculous waste for the government to engage in censorship. “Between five and six thousand pamphlets against Louis XIV were printed in Holland, and none of them helped him to lose the battles of Blenheim, Turin and Ramillies,” Voltaire wrote.

The long-term effects on politics of the mass media’s selection of news and opinions differ from the short-term ones. Voltaire’s analysis is only half complete. He should also have investigated how the princes incorporated in their decisions the climate of opinion created by Protestant publications. His conclusion would then have been that the sword that is regarded as legitimate by the people creates more enduring history than the sword that serves merely as an expression of the prince’s use of naked power. for the opinions voiced in the media — however circumscribed they may be — in many respects determine how the world’s rulers can use their instruments of power. To be effective, power must be confirmed in some way, and in this process of confirmation the media play an important role.

Educated people who are aware of the historical wealth of circumstances and standpoints on numerous different topics usually regard the mass media with disrespect. They know that the mass media’s range of subjects and values is restricted, in the literal sense of the word. For the truly ignorant the media may, of course, be informative; but for the truly knowledgeable they blunt the intellect. The conversations, works of art, ideas, devotions and consensus between opposing parties that make up the core of a civilization extend far beyond, and far more deeply than, the potential scope of the mass media.

Simultaneously, it should be said that the media help the educated and uneducated alike to recognize society’s élites. The media make the holders of powerful political positions visible, in all their glory and frailty. The media also identify
scientific precursors, industrial matadors, geniuses of art and literature, and magnates of the religious spirit. The élites therefore have a highly ambivalent attitude towards the media. They despise them for their narrowness of outlook and their ignorance — and they are attracted by them for their ability to convey fame and confirm their position in society.

When members of the élite are recruited to serve on the boards of newspapers they are reluctant to use their powers in any way to displease the journalists since they need the goodwill of the latter in their other pursuits. Newspaper boards are notoriously weak in anything that affects the journalists. The are much tougher on the typesetters and printers.

The interplay between journalists and people in power is one of mutual dependence and perfidy. Journalists light up the way for society’s top dogs. But they also make merciless use of their contacts with the holders of power. They are exploited and they exploit.

All this was known at least a century ago.

Arbiters of Media Content

During the American Civil War, the northern states received the support of public opinion in Britain. But the leading London newspapers argued that Britain should help the Confederate states. Pro-North opinion found it difficult to gain press coverage.

A German-born immigrant journalist and social debater in London by the name of Karl Marx was asked by friends in Vienna why there was such disparity of opinion between what the newspapers said and what people thought. Did press and public opinion differ?

Marx  replied with an article that was published on Christmas Day 1861 in the Vienna newspaper Die Presse. Its analysis is simple and straightforward. Granted, the public British attitude that one should help the southern states was a minority opinion, but one that was well represented in the ruling class — and particularly by the prime minister, Viscount Henry Palmerston who dominated British politics. By means of their contacts with the press through relatives, acquaintances, politicians and businessmen, the opinions of the Palmerston circle became those of the press as well. Marx wrote:

Consider the London press. At its head stands The Times, whose chief editor, B. Lowe, is a subordinate member of the cabinet and a mere creature of Palmerston. The Principal Editor of Punch was accommodated by Palmerston with a seat on the Board of Health and an annual salary of a thousand pounds sterling. The Morning Post is in part Palmerston’s private property.... The Morning Advertiser is the joint property of the licensed victuallers.... The editor, Mr Grant, has had the honour to get invited to Palmerston’s private soirées.... It must be added that the pious patrons of this liquor-journal stand under the ruling rod of the Earl of Shaftesbury and that Shaftesbury is Palmerston’s son-in-law[3].

One striking and valuable part of Marx’ analysis is the observation that the content of the media determined by networks was determined by a small network. Gaining a hearing in the contemporary London press seems to be virtually identical with being listened to and having one’s opinions accepted by press owners. For Marx, the truth was plain: it was the media barons and their networks that determined whose voice and which opinions should be heard. When the owners belonged to the same network, they were unanimous.

The liberal press ideology that now prevails in the Western world has the same starting-point. Diversity in the press can be achieved only through a multiplicity of owners representing different interests. For Marx was wrong in believing that all owners necessarily have the same interests.

Enter Social Research

By the middle of the twentieth century, the importance of the media was being toned down. It had long been known in a general way that no one reads everything, and no one pays attention to all he reads. Attention is drawn mostly to media content representing threats to the fabric of social life: crime and violence, deceit in high places, accidents and disasters, divorce and sexual excesses among the celebrated, death or sickness of leaders, war and revolutions. This was now confirmed by research. Normal social functioning was not the most selling topic from journalists — clean air does not make news, polluted air does.

Convincing research reports also appeared showing how people read newspapers with great discrimination and remember radio and TV programs, if at all, in a highly selective way, according to their own interests and the opinions or prejudices they had already formed. The editorial staff and the advertising department might have produced one newspaper, but the reader made another, smaller paper by a process of selection and sifting. And this smaller paper contains practically no compelling call to form new opinions and embark on new behaviors. Joseph Klapper concluded in a much quoted review of empirical studies that “mass communications ordinarily do not serve as a necessary and sufficient cause of audience effects.[4]” Other researchers emphasized that informal groups or opinion leaders in circles of acquaintances filtered and reinterpreted the media’s message XE "media impact:filtered by opionion leaders" . Moreover, these opinion leaders differed from topic to topic. Media influence was thus not as direct as was previously thought.[5]

Nowadays, the idea of the mighty media is once more a focus but in a new, more sophisticated guise. Among others, attention is devoted to ideas brought up in Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s theory of and research into the “spiral of silence”. This theory deals in a technical and narrow sense with a series of microsociological propositions, namely —  

The consequences of these propositions for the formation of public opinion are considerable. It is noteworthy that the impact of the theory has gone well beyond these microsociological propositions and has ended with macrosociological conclusions on the influence of the media.

When large groups of citizens — even, sometimes, the majority — rely on the media to tell them which opinions prevail, they do not always find their own opinions confirmed. Instead, they are given the editorial staffs’ special selection. People then lose their self-confidence, fear isolation, and withdraw from conversations, thereby contributing to the premature demise of their own opinions. They may conceivably retain these opinions, but they keep them to themselves. They neither expose them, nor try to convince others, nor fight for them. Thus media are crucial in the selection of surviving public opinions.

To have inspired a reevaluation of the might of the media is a major achievement of this theory. It remains so regardless of the fate of particular microsociological propositions in the theory in the future march of scientific progress, and it remains so regardless of the fact that some people misunderstand the theory of the spiral of silence when they discuss the power of the media. For the unit of analysis in the microsociological theory of opinion expression are the persons. The
 unit of analysis in the macrosociologcal discussion of media power are usually various the public opinions.

The legacy of the theory in the discussion of media power can be summarized in this way: When citizens reach for their newspapers, seeking news, entertainment, and potential subjects of conversation for the day, support for their own interests and views is not always forthcoming. Instead, they find the journalists’ selection of subjects and views. Failing to find their own opinions in the newspaper gives pause to many readers. They may even lose their self-confidence and withhold their own views from everyday conversations. What they really believe in then falls into a spiral of silence.

In the struggle for survival among opinions, the media thus plays a decisive role. Let us elaborate.

How the public knows public opinion

Opinions acceptable in conversations with people with whom our contacts may be relatively superficial are in the mundane sense of the word “public opinions”, i.e., those we could conceivably express in to relative strangers, such as in conversation with a taxi driver, or, in any public place such as the waiting line for a bus, or, in the compartment of a train — and, of course, in the interview arranged by a polling organization. In a less trivial formulation: “public opinion is an opinion in value-laden areas that can be voiced in public and upon which actions can be based in public[6]”.

In our daily conversations, most people prefer to express public opinions, i.e. views which are, or may be expected to be, supported by others in our circle. If we plug opinions that are not shared by others, we risk isolation. We may become odd men out and, at worst, we are expelled from the group.

But how do we know public opinion? We constantly scan for it, says the theory. But if everybody does, structural circumstances may be decisive.

People who are well integrated into conversation circles and networks (relatives, colleagues, neighbors, friends) are, in all likelihood, adept at rapidly picking up what others think. This enables them to give candid expression to their version of public opinion (and perhaps a few of the odd aberrant personal opinion as well) without disturbing the group. They know public opinion whether or not they have been exposed to the media.

Those who are poorly integrated into their conversation circles, and therefore lack knowledge of what are serviceable opinions, run more of a risk to “put their foot in it”. Newspapers, radio and TV, rather than personal contacts, are their principal source of information on what others believe and think, i.e., which climate of opinion prevails. For them, the media alone define the nature of current conventional wisdom and teach them public opinion. From this perspective, the media teach them not so much what to believe and think, but rather which opinions are acceptable in public intercourse. XE "public opinion" \r "publicopinion1"

If there is any truth in all the talk about the atomization of modern society, the number of people in the latter predicament is growing, and the notion of a “mass society” is a reality. And in mass society mass media rules. Thus we can conclude that the spiral of silence becomes more relevant when related to the structural trends in modern society.

The public opinion in editorial offices and studios

You cannot report about everything. The journalistic process is one of never ending selection. The wire services present long menus. Editorial meetings are held to decide which stories to pursue. The reporters who are given assignment to pursue stories must sift and sort facts and views in the raw material that they can muster. The sub-editors select among the stories available what shall be published, what shall be outright rejected, what shall be reworked, shortened or strengthened, and what shall remain in store for another day. The board of directors has sifted and selected candidates for an editor-in-chief, who together with colleagues have sifted and selected and appointed various subeditors. Editorial policies have been hammered out from many alternatives; options have been rejected and adopted. In this long chain of picking and choosing lies also the details and colors that make a news story come alive. The noble art of journalism is to make sure that life and reality remains when the journalistic process comes to the end at the moment of publication.

There is public opinion also in the editorial offices and the studios of the mass media. It vibrates easily through the typically open landscape of news-desks. Like other humans, the journalists and photographers fear isolation if they deviate from public opinion at their place of work. In some instances they have every reason to. Except in religious sects and in leftist student groups have I have never seen so much pressure toward consensus and conformity as in a large Swedish editorial office in the 1980s. In an internal news-sheet the critique of the deviating colleagues was documented. You could readily see the group pressure also in the dress of the staff which was clean but sloppy; in no way must you dress so that you could be
taken for a person from the establishment. Mobbing (bullying) of deviates, the ultimate form of isolation, did occur. In one instance a journalist was mobbed even before he started his job at the paper. His sin: as the previous step in his journalistic career, he had edited the membership publication of the Federation of Employers. Certain positions were particularly exposed; an editor with the highest integrity could became suspect — if he or she edited the travel section and wrote about experiences in expensive and exotic places. The amount of self-censorship such a climate of opinion can exercise is considerable.

Research that is informed by the ideas of a spiral of silence into the opinion climate of the editorial offices would more than anything I can imagine illuminate the mechanisms of media power. What we have so far of penetrating insights into this milieu comes, not from research, but from thorough American court proceedings in connections in libel trials such as Westmoreland versus Columbia Broadcasting System and Sharon versus Time.[7]

Freedom of Speech and the Chance to be Heard

Our present-day legislation offers the free right of establishment to anyone seeking to issue printed media. For broadcasting media, most European countries (still) have restrictions on establishment that are difficult to circumvent. What creates obstacles is not technology but politicians. There is broad, unused scope for new local radio channels, and also some room for local television.

The legislators seem to believe that, through the Freedom of the Press Ordinances, they have guaranteed that citizens’ voices will be heard in the media. The Swedish Ordinance entitles a “legally responsible publisher” — who may be different from the owner — to disseminate opinions in printed media without prior censorship. But for the participants in a conflict of opinion, the problem remains: to gain a hearing, one must find a responsible publisher who wishes to spread one’s opinion, and furthermore — here I speak from personal experience — can prevail upon the employees to accept this decision. Making one’s voice heard in the media is far from easy even for those who represent Establishment values, and it is extremely difficult for anyone representing opinions that deviate from conventional ones.

An abundance of opinions that lack a public forum has, indeed, long been a typical feature of the climate of opinion in Western publics: silent opinion XE "silent opinion"  and public opinion appear to coexist alongside each other. In the past decade, many ordinary opinions in my country have had obvious difficulties in ex-
pressing themselves in our predominant media. This applies to opinions on the ineffectiveness of aid to developing countries, the immorality of Sweden’s policy of neutrality, deception in public sickness insurance, immigrants’ criminality, the cruelty of the welfare state towards its “clients”, the role of biological inheritance in behavior, the rights of gypsies and Lapps, the outstanding capacity of state support to literature for creating waste paper, the successes of Thatcherism, and a great deal else of interest to future historians. A striking self-censorship is carried out by the climate of opinion prevailing in newspapers’ editorial offices.

Professions’ and Unions’ Power

Nowadays, newspaper owners exert no decisive influence over the content of the daily press. Two circumstances have created an entirely new situation: the professionalisation of journalism and the emergence of strong trade-union rights in editorial offices.

In order for an occupation to become a profession — like law, accountancy, medicine, dentistry and the clergy — its practitioners must have a special university education that confers expert knowledge. These days, journalists have their own colleges of journalism that train and prepare students in the skills of the job: evaluating news items, writing reports, conducting interviews and editing the results for printing or broadcasting.

Training in journalism is linked with the existing traditions of the occupation. There is a German tradition of journalism that regards the ultimate task of the journalist as to convey a Weltanschauung — a philosophy of life. (Karl Marx XE "Marx, K" , of course, worked in this tradition.) There is a British tradition of seeing the function of journalism as providing a good story — that is, news or a report with intrigue, drama and a sense of immediacy. There is also an American journalistic tradition whereby the primary task is the exposé, or “muckraking” — exposing evils, misuse of power and the like. Journalism is not immune to the fickleness of fashion: for the time being (since Watergate) the muckraking tradition is held in the highest regard.

By virtue of its expert knowledge, a profession seeks a monopoly in its sphere of activity. The art of medicine must be practiced by doctors; other practitioners are dubbed quacks. Only a qualified lawyer may work as a barrister or solicitor, and so forth. The voice of the public is seldom heard in the courtroom — the lawyer, as the citizen’s representative, serves this purpose. This promotes the rule of law. Similarly, journalists nowadays consider themselves representatives of the
 public in the public sector. This they regard as promoting democracy, but on this point there is no proof and theoretical objections abound.

With ample justification, it may be asserted that journalists’ expertise and skills are in no way as wide-ranging as those of a doctor’s, lawyer’s or accountant’s training. Anyone with good judgment and an ability to write can become a journalist without undergoing specialist training. But in practice young men and women without formal training in journalism seldom secure jobs in large editorial offices these days.

Hand in hand with the professional monopoly of the practice of an occupation, one finds in the professions that control of activities is exercised by colleagues, not by owners, administrators, public authorities or other outsiders. It is the chief physician, not the hospital director or the county-council politician, who determines diagnosis, medication and treatment.

Through their professionalization, journalists have acquired a monopoly that decides how space in the media is to be used. They must follow certain rules, for example:

Editorial offices graciously allow a few per cent of the space on newspaper pages to a letter or debate section in which readers can take the initiative to bring matters close to their hearts to public attention. But journalists determine which contributions are accepted and which people are allowed to make themselves heard. The cultural pages are increasingly seldom written by outside intellectuals; cultural journalists and contracted writers begin to predominate. Here dies before our eyes a great European newspaper tradition.

In Sweden, the monopoly power of this journalist profession has gone hand in hand with trade-union influence. Swedish journalists’ trade unions now have a decisive say in editorial offices’ staff policy. According to special clauses in the co-determination legislation, the trade union should not exert any influence over
chief editors’ appointments. But in practice the local unions wield tremendous influence — everything from a right of veto to the de facto right to appoint the chief editor. For other editorial staff, there is a consultation procedure that would make the most active unionists in the public sector envious.

Points 7 and 8 in the agreement between the journalists’ union and Svenska Dagbladet XE "Svenska Dagbladet"  that has been in force since 1983 illustrate this point:

“The union must be informed of all job applications. In recruitment, the union takes part in the work of preparation and selection. The union is given the opportunity to meet candidates under consideration. In temporary staff appointments, too, the union must be informed of applications and given the opportunity to express an opinion.”

In Sweden, the close marriage between the profession and the trade union starts as early as in the college of journalism. Believe it or not, the students’ union and the trade union there are usually identical!

Accordingly, we reach the absurd stage at which it is much easier for a person trained as a journalist to write about medicine in the newspaper than for a doctor, for a trained journalist to write about law than a lawyer, for a trained journalist to write about business than a business graduate, and for a journalist to write about strategic issues than an officer.

The profession of journalism in Sweden is a network that rivals the London press of Palmerston’s day. The key editorial offices in Stockholm — those of Eko on the radio, Rapport and Aktuellt on television, the news agency TT and the major dailies, Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Expressen and Aftonbladet — are staffed by the same network. Most have more in common than their certificate from the School of Journalism.

They socialize in their spare time. They are, in fact, partly forced together by the other élites’ disdain for “hacks”. When they change jobs — a frequent occurrence — they go to another of the key editorial offices and obtain higher pay and more similar opinions. Journalists from different key editorial offices often cohabitate or marry one another. The net result is that in Stockholm there is in practice only one, repeat one, approach to news. Diversity is an illusion. Add to this the fact that the Stockholm editors’ news valuation each day is, in many respects, the following day’s news valuation in the rest of the country. This may be the curse of a small country, but on some scale the phenomenon seem worldwide[8]. As Western democracies go, postwar Sweden has had a strikingly limited range of approved opinions. The key editorial staffs of the mass media feed the people with
 unremarkable, easily digestible subjects and views, and the outcome is public opinion that is lagom, as the Swedes say. In the political sphere this has usually means a compromise acceptable to the Social Democrats and the labor unions. There is, in fact, something a trifle ridiculous about a West European country where the left wing for the entire post war period has been unable to envisage a communist in the government or as a provincial governor, and the right wing for several decades (until 1991) could not openly contemplate a conservative prime minister or minister of foreign affairs.

Advising politicians

Modern career politicians are among the groups who have poor personal “grass-roots” contact with what the general public is talking about. They know what is said and accepted in conference rooms, at municipal offices and among their friends at party headquarters. They are also able to keep in touch with the views of various organizations’ representatives, who can be assembled for a meeting or consulted by telephone. But nowadays such representatives are mostly graduates who know everything about their organization except ordinary members’ chitchat.

The work situation of career politicians thus renders them unfamiliar with opinion trends among ordinary voters. They resemble the many people who live in isolation from everyday conversations. Although they sometimes move in everyday circles, they are stamped as “powermongers” and “authorities” and, as a result, treated with a certain reservation.

Career politicians — like the portion of their voters who live in isolation — thus become helplessly dependent on mass media for their grasp of public opinion.

This helps explain the media’s influence on contemporary politics. Power is not primarily located in leading articles which aim to tell politicians what to believe and do. Power lies in the fact that journalists influence on what is acceptable current public opinion in a form that is immediately accessible to those who need it — politicians in particular.

To advise politicians as a pollster is a never ending assignment to inform and remind them of the state of public opinion climate in key segments of the electorate, and, at the same time, the public opinion climate in the editorial offices.

Politicians today cannot survive without media skills. But they must not be taken in by the television and the press. I have never felt it appropriate to advise a conservative party to run an election campaign primarily through the big media
of journalism. There are too many elements of individualism and hierarchy in the party creed that do not sit well with the media gatekeepers. As an election campaign develops, you may need to bypass the editorial climate of media by paid advertisements in the media, public meetings, personal canvassing knocking at many doors, letter campaigns, direct mail promotions, and political telemarketing.

How To Discover Media Bias

Mary Douglas, the British anthropologist, maintains that there are a limited number of myths about nature in the world. The main ones can be illustrated by how a ball rolls on a surface[9].

The first notion conceives of nature as benign and generous. It can be recreated. Even if you exploit it, it will in time return to its previous state of equilibrium. In other words, the ball rolls back to the bottom of the trough. This view is common among industrialists.

Figure 1. The four primary myths of nature. From Thompson et al., p. 27.


The myth of capricious nature has the ball rolling anywhere on a flat plane. There is no knowing what it will do next, and no use theorizing about it. This gives grounding for the fatalist whose grounded belief that in anything-can-happen is at least theoretically safe from surprises sprung by nature.



The myth of fragile nature has the ball on top of a mound, delicately poised in the only place it can be in equilibrium. The smallest shift will roll it off the landscape altogether. For an example of a theory based on this kind of myth the authors cite the Malthusian prophecy of overpopulation.


The myth that nature is robust has the ball in the bottom of a curve; which ever way it is pushed off centre it can only roll back into position again. All perturbations will work out for the good. This is the myth that encourages bold, individualistic experimentation, expansion, and large-scale technological development.

Entrepreneurial Expansionists

When nature is robust within limits the ball is in a dip between two hillocks; it can roll within specific limits and be expected to come back safely, but too big a push risks sending it over the edge of the containing frame. This is the myth to encourage risk-averse planning controls, government intervention, restrictions on the market.



Another view holds that nature can be utilized but that it is capricious. You have to struggle with it continuously, like the farmer who must contend with changeable weather conditions when harvesting his crops. The ball can roll here or there on a plane surface. You may want to steer it, but it defies control.

The third myth conceives of nature as tolerant within certain limits. Man must confine himself to these limits if he wishes to avoid disaster and nature’s perverse side. If you are not careful the ball may be forced out of the trough where it belongs, with unforeseeable consequences.

According to the fourth myth nature is ephemeral and volatile. It can turn the tables on us if we are thoughtless and reckless. The ball perches on the peak of the trough and threatens to roll down at any minute. This view is common in the periphery of society.

At the turn of the century the European burghers held that nature was benign and robust. The first generations of socialists were on the whole in agreement. Today, however, several grass-roots movements view nature as ephemeral and volatile and argue that radical changes in our lifeways are imperative. This is also a common view among journalists. The media have a very evident bias: they present nature as ephemeral to a much greater extent than both laymen and natural scientists.[10]

So much for the nature of nature. Now for the nature of society. Again we follow the arguments of Mary Douglas.

In the main, when we contemplate society we do so in accordance with one of three basic ideological positions.

The first emphasizes individuality. One takes every opportunity to distinguish oneself from other people. It is likely that individualists fear social isolation less than others. The individualist prefers self-regulation to centralized control. He favors networks rather than organizations and the market rather than bureaucracy. The minimal centralized authority that he can countenance would be that which protects the right of private ownership and upholds contracts. “Stories that stress individual achievement or the desirability of deregulation or the virtues of markets would be biased in their direction,” says Aaron Wildavsky[12].

The second stresses hierarchy. One strives to preserve and stabilize the differences that exist in society. There are differences between those who are law-abiding and those who are criminal, between men and women, between young and old. There are, above all, disparities between people who have more or less of the cardinal values in society: the powerful and the powerless, rich and poor, the knowledgeable with good grades and the ignorant with poor grades, those who have found salvation and those who are damned, between those with good taste and those with bad taste, those with high moral standards and people with low moral standards. Hierarchical ideology organizes life in accordance with such stratification. Those who embrace this ideology usually prefer an organization with stable ranks to a market that can give rise to disorder and untidy ranks of nouveau riche. “Stories that praise traditional moral norms or excoriate deviance or defend the nation and its institutions would reflect a hierarchical bias,” says Wildavsky. 

The third position emphasizes egalitarianism. One strives to minimize disparities between social categories. The good things in life — as well as the bad — are to be shared by all in a spirit of solidarity. Young and old. men and women, native-born and immigrants are to be treated the same. There are to be no class differences.  All are to enjoy the same living conditions. Wildavsky summarizes the bias that egalitarians introduce into journalism: “Stories on the desirability of reducing disparities in power or wealth or that criticize existing authority or unmask hidden hierarchies in public life reveal an egalitarian bias.”

It is difficult to wholeheartedly maintain the ideals of egalitarianism except in small groupings (or sects or cells) without elaborate staffs and officials where everyone is supposed to act in terms of a universal brotherhood or sisterhood. Here the reign of the spiral of silence is supreme. In such egalitarian groups the fear of isolation is very high and very realistic. They often split, and the deviants form their own group. The egalitarians seeking an impact for their ideology on a grander scale may try an alliance with the central powers to realize equality through legislation or taxation, and government enforcement. In this process the egalitarian ideology easily becomes corrupted by the hierarchy of the state. Such was the fate of the Realsozialismus.

Ways of looking at nature and views of society have some points in common. The individualist would, for example, have difficulty in continuing to enhance his distinctiveness if he thought of nature as ephemeral and believed that pursuing his individuality could destroy it. It is more convenient for him to conceive of nature as benign. In like manner, a person of egalitarian persuasion would have difficulty in maintaining that all resources should be shared equally if he thought of nature as benign and extravagantly generous. But if nature is ephemeral it is easier to accept the premise that no one should have more than anyone else.

Opposition to individualism and hierarchy is most evident in the media. The media are not shy about congratulating themselves on their perfidy to all ideals except journalistic ones. In reality, today’s media have an overarching loyalty: editorial staffs construct news and views that have an egalitarian slant and reflect the idea that nature is ephemeral. They see to it that news that expresses a belief in authority or is sympathetic to social inequities or presents nature as robust is reported only briefly, if at all, or, is banished to the demeaning “letters to the editor” section. The same fate often befalls news that expresses a keen and joyous individualism; such material can also be satanized as egoism. (Exceptions to this can occur on the sport pages.)

It is not ill will that governs such editorial judgment. It is rather the result of a narrowness of vision common to journalists and their editors, that is regarded (believe it or not) as eminently “responsible” by those involved. In addition, egalitarianism is promoted by the market requirement of having a large reading, listening, or viewing audience. For egalitarianism, rightly or wrongly, is believed to be the most common ideology of the masses."

The leftist leanings of journalists is an old song in many countries, but true. The general biases we have described do not suggest any future change in this state of affairs. Let me add some good data from my own country of Sweden.

In the 1970s and 1980s in Swedish editorial offices it was axiomatic that journalism and the defense of capitalism are irreconcilable. In late 1989, at he time of the East German uprising leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall, a survey of 931 journalists was conducted in connection with an official investigation into the power structure in Sweden. It revealed that one-third, 32% of newsmen and 41% of the newswomen in the nation supported the Swedish Communist party (vpk) or the Greens (mp).[13] In the election campaign of 1991 opinion polls clearly showed at an early stage that these two parties would fare badly. One can therefore understand why the Swedish Union of Journalists responded to a conflict with the provincial press (FLT) by threatening to strike on election day. One simply did not want the election results this time. The Greens were dislodged from the riksdag anyway, and the communists just barely managed to retain some seats. Together they received 7.9 per cent of the popular vote. These 7.9 per cent certainly have a hefty representation in the media!

Future Possibilities

Are there any prospects of being able to break up the opinion monopoly, the chorus of one-sided voices on egalitarian society and the hymn to nature ephemeral?

Many see some hope in increased owner responsibility and a return of power from the journalistic profession back to the owners. There were more newspapers in Europe one hundred years ago than there are today; they had very different profiles and very different owner interests. But since then the newspaper publishers have learned to concentrate on the financial aspects and have left the words and pictures for others to take care of. Can the owners relearn the old ways? Can they find boards of directors immune to pressures from journalists? I doubt it.

Others hope to bring vigorous intellectual capacities and Bildung to editorial staffs. In Europe we have had a tradition whereby a period as the editor-in-chief
of a newspaper can be part of a long intellectual and academic career. But today this seems to be self-evident only in Eastern Europe. where several leading dissidents have become editors-in-chief. My experience from Sweden in the ‘80s has been that there is compact opposition to the inclusion of such outside capacity: it is driven out by the alliance between professional journalists and the unions.

One can also pin one’s hopes on technological development. Low-cost local radio stations, moderately priced desk-top publishing, reasonably cheap video cameras and equipment for editing video tapes, cable TV and other electronic networks, data bases, the indispensable news letters for those who really want information in a special field — all present increasingly viable alternatives to the massive monopoly of opinion.

One tried and proved solution is to balance editorial staffs with outside columnists. All American columnists are not lone intellectuals who develop opinions on their own. Often a whole staff of researchers and writers help produce the admired article by the familiar by-line. Such columnists can stay clear of editorial departments and remain uncorrupted by their egalitarian climate of opinion. Through a judicious choice of columnists and by giving them ample space, diversity can replace the ideological narrow-mindedness of editorial mentality.


[1] Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, Die Schweigespirale öffentliche Meinung - unsere soziale Haut, Piper, München & Zürich, 1980,

[2] One can argue about the number of life-spheres and their delineation. See, for example, Lawrence A. Scaff , Fleeing the Iron Cage, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989, pp. 94-96.

[3]Karl Marx XE "Marx, K"  and Friedrich Engels, The Civil War in the United States, International Publishers, New York, 1974, 124-125. [I found this passage quoted on page 126 in Graham Murdock, "Large Corporations and the Control of the Communications Industries" in Michael Gurevich et al. (editors), Culture, Society and the Media, Methuen, London, 1982, pp. 118 150.]

[4]Joseph Klapper XE "Klapper, J" , The Effects of Mass Communications, Free Press, Glencoe, Ill., 1960.

[5]The first major work with this orientation is Elihu Katz and Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Personal Influence, Free Press, Glencoe Ill, 1955.

[6]This formulation is found in the appendix with definitions in Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, "The Theory of Public Opinion: The Concept of the Spiral of Silence", in James A Anderson (editor), Communication Yearbook, vol 14, Sage, London, 1991, pp. 256-287.

[7]Renata Adler XE "Adler, R" , Reckless Disregard, Knopf, New York, 1988.

[8]In Europe we lack broad research into the media elites of the type represented in the United States by S. Robert Lichter XE "Lichter, S R" , Stanley Rothman and Linda Lichter, The Media Elite, America's New Power Brokers, Bethseda, Maryland, Adler & Adler, 1986.

[9]Michael Thompson, Richard Ellis, and Aaron Wildavsky, Cultural Theory, Westview Press, Boulder Colorado, 1990, ch. 1. The authors of this book elaborate the group-grid theory of Mary Douglas.

[10]See, for example, Hans Mathias Kepplinger XE "Kepplinger, H M" , "Die Kernenergie in der Presse," Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, vol 40 (1988), pp. 64-58 and Jörgen Westerståhl and Folke Andersson, "Chernobyl and the Nuclear Power Issue in Sweden," International Journal of Public Opinion Research, vol 3 (1991), pp. 115-131.

[11]For a beginning reading of Douglas' own formulations on cultural biases we recommend Mary Douglas, In Active Voice, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1982, esp. pp. 190- 208.

[12]Aaron Wildavsky XE "Wildavsky, A" , The Rise of Radical Egalitarianism, The American University Press, Washington DC, 1991, p. 117-118.

[13]Olof Pettersson och Ingrid Carlberg, Makten över tanken, Carlssons, Stockholm, 1990, p. 120. The full comparison is shown here (all numbers are percentages): 


Journalists 1989

Election 1991

vpk (Communist)



mp (Green)



s (Social Democrat)



c (Agrarian)



fp (Liberal)



kds (Christian)



m (Conservative)



In the election emerged a new party of discontent (nyd), stressing individualist values. It obtained 6.7% in the election. It did not exist at the time of the survey of journalists. In the media it was treated as entertainment, not as politics.