The Public Sphere and ‘Black Comedy’

The public sphere is a theory that German sociologist Jurgen Habermas proposed in 1962 which can be summarized as a ‘social space in which different opinions are expressed, problems of general concern are discussed, and collective solutions are developed communicatively’.

The emergence of new media has enabled new public spheres to form in our society which has allowed issues to be widely presented to the public, provoking discussion and debate amongst different groups. This has revolutionized our use of the media and how society operates in relation to people engaging with and responding to current issues. Media such as music, movies, music videos are all forms of entertainment, but they have also been utilized to present issues to audiences and provoke debate in the public sphere.

You may have heard of the ABC series ‘Black Comedy’.

The show creatively explores racial politics as a conduit to exchange ideas and feelings about Indigenous identity, heritage, slang, cultural misconceptions and stereotypes with audiences, which is uniquely addressing issues of causal racism in society. This series has provoked debate in the public sphere through its presentation and discussion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social disadvantage, issues and experiences as a comical form of light-hearted entertainment. This is where the power of the series comes from as an Indigenous actor in the series Deborah Mailman reflects “Humour is a wonderful vehicle for breaking down barriers. It’s looking at an indigenous experience through the realm of humour. It allows audiences to understand some of the issues.”

In its entirety, this series is a public sphere as it is a space where societal issues regarding Indigenous people can be represented and provoke discussion and debate amongst the public.

This form of interaction between the media and the public is also existent on platforms such as Facebook. Not only can the media provoke debate about issues, as the series ‘Black Comedy’ has done, but people can also use the media to debate and discuss current issues. For instance, people can post what they think of something on Facebook. This could be a racist rant or it could be counteracting others point of view on such topics, people can inform others of terrible customer service they experienced, people can involve in comment wars and debate about controversial issues etc.

Basically, what I am trying to say is that the media can be utilized to create a space for engaging the public with issues through mediums such as TV series, and that everyday people can also inform others of issues through platforms, that there are different forms of public spheres which can trigger debate and deliberation within society that may then influence social, political and remedial action.



Is the media influencing your ideology ?

What first comes to mind when you see or hear the word ‘shark’?

I can imagine the words ‘attack’, ‘killer’, or ‘predator’ surfaces in your mind. Think about where you have heard these words used and where this perception of sharks has been represented.

The answer is in the media; in newspapers, on television, in memes, on face book, in movies, on online publications etc.

Due to the reality that not everyone has personally experienced being in the presence of a shark, we rely on the media to fill in the gaps and form our perceptions of these animals.

It is common for the media to capitalize the audience’s fear of sharks and feed off societies negative ideological position that sharks are blood thirsty killers which has been disseminated globally with the release of the 1975 film ‘Jaws’. The media continually reinforce these negative perceptions by adopting the most engaging news angle in order to formulate a news story that captures the audience’s attention.


{image 1 source, image 2 source, memes made by me here}

This has contributed to a severely unbalanced representation of shark’s in the media.


Take for instance, the media coverage of the professional Australian surfer Mick Fanning and his encounter with a shark.

Headlines of this event include;


{screenshot from The Sydney Morning Herald}

Shark_MF_headline_2_ABCNews{screenshot from ABC News}

Shark_MF_headline_4_guardian{screenshot from The Guardian}

Shark_MF_headline_3_Telegraph{screenshot from The Telegraph}

As you can see these headlines encapsulate the mainstream ideology of sharks and demonstrates the heavily unbalanced media coverage of these animals, as only one of the stories has sought the input of a shark expert.

If you listen to the interview with the professional surfer, Fanning’s direct quote is “I felt something get stuck in my leg rope”. In this scenario, it seems that the media has chosen to embellish the appearance of the shark’s violent behaviour as the animal attacking the surfer. Whereas, it is possible that the shark’s tussle may have been one of distraught in attempt to untangle itself from the leg rope.

The reason why I am talking about these attitudes towards sharks is to allow people to begin to understand the media’s capability of reinforcing negative ideologies, which I believe that most people can relate to in terms of fearing sharks as cold-blooded killers.

This leads me to emphasise media critic, Jeff Cohen’s valid point that ‘what we learn will be what the media shows us’. The fact that it is the media informing us of issues and events, that they have the power to dramatically influence our ideologies and our perceptions by choosing what to show us, what to tell us and what not to, gives them the power to shape what we may think. Even more alarming is that there is a severely unbalanced ownership of media in Australia.

To put it into perspective here is a snapshot:


{image source}

Consequently, this amass of ownership yields the power to ideologically concentrate content that is distributed to the public, meaning that bias news is inevitably existent.   In response to this, there is rising critique and concern regarding media’s role in our society and the ideological control it has over people.


What is your attitude towards sharks and where did it come from??

Who do you think has influenced your opinion???



What instantly comes to mind when you see this image:

Kevin-Gilbert-Colonising-species-1989_COMPLEX IMAGE_SEMIOTICS

 {image source}

For some, it may be that the ugly duckling story springs to mind, or you think of UOW’s aggressive geese that won’t hesitate to steal your lunch. Basically there could be many interpretations , but there is one that is the true, deeper meaning of this complex image.

This is an example of what we call Semiotics.  For those of you who don’t know, semiotics refers to the ‘study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation’, which is what you have just involved in by reading into the image above.

This image is actually an artwork created by the indigenous artist Kevin Gilbert in 1989. I came across it hanging in a hallway when I was wandering like a lost sheep in a maze, only that maze was building 19 at UOW.

Kevin Gilbert was a Wiradjuri man who was passionate about Aboriginal culture and was actively involved in advocating indigenous rights. Gilbert designed this artwork titled ‘Colonising Species’, with the intentions of providing a racial commentary on the oppression of Aboriginal people.

Let’s delve into the deeper meaning of the artwork and understand what is being represented and what it means.


White swan:  symbolises Europeans

Black swan:  symbolises Aboriginal people

Red water in foreground:  connotes the bloodshed of Aboriginal people

Composition and colour of background:  signifies the Aboriginal flag


When you entangle these connotations and denotations together to form its meaning, you can interpret that it is a lack of Aboriginal sovereignty which is embedded into the message of this artwork, more specifically Gilbert is responding to the High Court’s rejection of ‘terra nullius’ in the 1992 Mabo case .

Despite Gilbert’s racial commentary on the oppression of Aboriginal people being central to the artwork’s meaning, many people may have interpreted the message differently in a semiotic sense.

So why do these different interpretations exist, and how does this occur?

Based on the communication model of ‘Encoding and Decoding’ that was established by the cultural theorist Stuart Hall  in 1973, a ‘frame work of knowledge’ is required in order to allow viewers to understand the message that is being communicated.

This ‘framework’ refers to the need for the decoder of a message, being the viewer, to have the same ‘code’ as the encoder, who is the creator of a message.

If your confused, to break it down:

Encode-Decode Meme_3

{Meme created here by me}

Also, by the phrase ‘code’ I am referring to an individual’s understanding that may be driven by their personal values, beliefs and experiences which articulates their ideological position. It is this ideology  that then determines how an individual undergoes the process of interpretation and applies their own connotations to the meaning that they make of the message. Basically what I’m trying to say is that one image can have many interpretations to different people.

So did you have the same ‘code’ as the artist??

If you didn’t that’s okay, but hopefully you gained some new knowledge that you can apply to your ideologies in the future.

Feel free to comment below what your interpretation was.


Media Audience Issues

Since the 18th century, the development of media has profoundly shaped the world in which we live. As a society, we are excessively consuming content through new modes of media allowing trending patterns to develop that are impacting society and individuals in many ways. This has given rise to many issues related to the influence of media on audiences

These days, obesity is a growing issue and has been linked to people’s overuse of the media as we are spending unhealthy amounts of time on screen. In regards to this matter, there is a common judgement that the media is to blame for an audience’s state of health. Although, is this really the case? Can we blame the media for an individual’s actions??

This is where media audience research can appear to be misleading in terms of media effects, especially when quantitative data is sourced. Yes, quantitative data shows that there is a correlation between overweight people and their overconsumption of the media, however, this does not mean that a causal relationship exists between the two. A more suited approach can be adopted such as qualitative research methods. Qualitative data is more appropriate as it allows for observation and the analyse of outcomes including emotional responses and impacts upon individuals. These research methods can aid us in our endeavour to learn about the varying effects of media on audiences. However, these research methods do not take into account individual perceptions, social and moral values that may also contribute to their resulting behaviour and actions.

From my knowledge, in attempt to appropriately understand the complexities of media audiences and their effects, media audience research needs to consider an individual’s social and moral values as the effects of media can vary according to the different social and behavioural contexts that an individual may be subjected to.

This leads us back to the question:   Is the media at fault for our individual actions??

Media is a powerful influence, however I believe that the power to act on our own thoughts and values originates from within ourselves. So my answer is, no. No the media is not to blame for obesity, or for our own lifestyle choices. The media is available for our use, but it is our choices that dictate how we use it. It is our choices that govern our own actions. It is our habits such as consuming unhealthy foods and a lack of exercise, that lead to complications such as obesity. It is our responsibility to be mindful of how much media content we are consuming and how much screen time we are spending.

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