This paper provides a critique of attempts in the field of political communication to explain apparent voter apathy and declining electoral turnout. The response of many commentators is either to blame the media for the problem or to see the media as the solution to any problem that might exist. First, the paper examines the ‘blame the media’ school of thought—as exemplified by liberal commentators in the UK and the USA. Secondly, the paper focuses on the ‘optimists’ who argue that the spin/media nexus is either morally neutral or may actually be improving citizen involvement.
The paper argues that both approaches are flawed at the level of conceptualisation and of methodology. The narrow conceptualisation of the field means that even in the unusual cases where scholars look beyond the question of elections, the research agenda is still fixed at the level of media power and not on how the media fit into a wider system of power relations. Most obviously, the field tends to avoid the question of political and economic outcomes.
The paper ends by suggesting that the problem of disengagement from formal politics is a response to the crisis of legitimacy in the institutions of democracy in the USA and UK.