Fall, 2016 (Issue 26.1–2)

The Benefits of Comparing Systems of Mediated Deliberation across Countries

Hartmut Wessler
Institute for Media and Communication Studies, University of Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany

“Deliberative democracy is like a Diesel car,” John Parkinson aptly remarked in a talk once. “You don’t expect to find the Diesel fuel in the glove compartment or the trunk, you expect to find it in the fuel tank.” What he meant, I think, is that deliberation is not supposed to be an all-encompassing quality of every aspect of democracy, but a particularly salient feature of a particular normative model of democracy. It is OK for really existing democracies to feature institutions in which decisions are taken by majority vote (and even institutions that are not democratically legitimated themselves such as independent central banks) – as long as the division of labor in the system as a whole ensures that all major policy proposals and the legitimacy of government are regularly subjected to inclusive, reasoned debate.

This state-of-the-art systemic view of deliberation (Parkinson & Mansbridge, 2012) puts normative weight on the quality of news and discussion in media ranging from newspapers, through TV and radio talk shows all the way to Facebook, Twitter & Co. None of these diverse forums needs to mimic the ideal speech situation devised by Jürgen Habermas (a concept, incidentally, that Habermas has not used anymore after 1972!). Nor should open mediated deliberation have to conform to the discourse rules that facilitate deliberative discussion in small-group settings. Instead media forums should collectively offer citizens, collective actors and decision-makers ways to express themselves in, and listen to, public debates imbued with a plurality of perspectives and a wide range of substantive justifications. In other words: They should facilitate aggregate-level learning processes, and reasoned dissent is just as fine as an outcome as substantive consensus (Wessler, 2008).

But just how much deliberativeness is enough deliberativeness? And how should it be distributed across the various media forums? The answers to these questions are not obvious at all. They will, I contend, not be found in deliberative theory, but only through comparative empirical analysis. The division of labor among different media forums, and between them and the various political institutions, in the deliberative system needs careful comparative investigation. For example, we know that in systems with strong public-service broadcasting (PSB) citizens know more about politics and the world (e.g., Iyengar et al., 2010). In systems without strong PSB basic epistemic functions might fall on other media forums such as online news, fact-checking websites or even satirical news programs. It seems that there is not one ideal deliberative constellation of media forums, but that different systems call for different types of complementarity. But how should we be able to know what works best in a given context without that systematic comparison?

The research I am favoring here was pioneered in the seminal study “Shaping abortion discourse” by Ferree and colleagues (2002), a US-German team of researchers. The authors show that quality newspapers in both countries have somewhat different profiles of deliberativeness (for example, including more perspectives from nonaffiliated individuals and everyday experience in the US dailies, and emphasizing argument complexity to some degree in the German ones). On the whole, however, deliberative performance turned out to be quite similar. A few studies have since investigated elements of media deliberativeness in two or more national contexts, including newspaper and TV coverage (Benson, 2013), TV news (Wessler & Rinke, 2014), newspapers and websites (Gerhards & Schäfer, 2010) or blogospheres (Hyun, 2012). Conversely, a few studies have compared the deliberative performance of different media forums in the same national context (see, for example, Freelon, 2015; Sobieraj & Berry, 2011). But to my knowledge no study to date has done both at the same time, that is, none has studied the systemic complementarity of various media forums and compared them across political-cultural contexts. What I am advocating, therefore, is the comparative analysis of systems of mediated deliberation.

Political communication scholarship benefits from this type of inquiry in at least three ways. First, media users today use all sorts of media concurrently and for different purposes, and it is this variegated usage that characterizes their experience of citizenship. By studying systems of mediated deliberation instead of individual media, empirical deliberation research would thus capture the actually existing media experience much better. Second, the kind of mediated deliberation we find in a particular system strongly depends on the institutional and macro-social context in which it takes place. There are indications that more consensual systems of governance (like Switzerland or, to a lesser extent, Germany) on average produce more civil debates but less public justifications for positions than majoritarian systems (such as the USA) (Wessler & Rinke, 2014). But there is much more to learn here, including the effects of racial, ethnic or cultural divisions on the deliberativeness of public discourse. A well-grounded theory of the macro-social foundations of deliberative media performance is only just beginning to emerge. Finally, deliberative theory has long been driven by the quest for democratic innovations. In this context the comparative analysis of systems of mediated deliberation will conceivably help devise contextualized innovations, which interact well with other system components, instead of isolated transplants that might not work well in the end.

Notes on contributor

Hartmut Wessler (PhD, Hamburg) is professor of media and communication studies at the University of Mannheim, Germany. His scholarship focuses on political communication, mediated contestation as well as global media debates on climate change, migration, and religion/secularism.


Benson, R. (2013). Shaping immigration news: A French-American comparison. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Ferree, M. M., Gamson, W. A., Gerhards, J., & Rucht, D. (2002). Shaping abortion discourse: Democracy and the public sphere in Germany and the United States. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Freelon, D. (2015). Discourse architecture, ideology, and democratic norms in online political discussion. New Media & Society, 17(5), 772-791. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444813513259

Gerhards, J., & Schäfer, M. S. (2010). Is the internet a better public sphere? Comparing old and new media in the USA and Germany. New Media Society, 12(1), 143-160. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444809341444

Hyun, K. D. (2012). Americanization of web-based political communication? A comparative analysis of political blogospheres in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 89(3), 397-413. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077699012447919

Iyengar, S., Curran, J., Lund, A. B., Salovaara-Moring, I., Hahn, K. S., & Coen, S. (2010). Cross-national versus individual-level differences in political information: A media systems perspective. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 20(3), 291-309. https://doi.org/10.1080/17457289.2010.490707

Parkinson, J., & Mansbridge, J. (Eds.). (2012). Deliberative systems: Deliberative democracy at the large scale. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Sobieraj, S., & Berry, J. M. (2011). From incivility to outrage: Political discourse in blogs, talk radio, and cable news. Political Communication, 28(1), 19-41. https://doi.org/10.1080/10584609.2010.542360

Wessler, H. (2008). Investigating deliberativeness comparatively. Political Communication, 25(1), 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1080/10584600701807752

Wessler, H., & Rinke, E. M. (2014). Deliberative performance of television news in three types of democracy: Insights from the U.S., Germany, and Russia. Journal of Communication, 64(5), 827-851. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12115

The Benefits of Comparing Systems of Mediated Deliberation across Countries