Public Sphere Dialogue in Online Newspapers and Social Spaces: The Nuclear Debate in Post Fukushima France

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Journal Article
Public Communication Review, 2012, 2 (2), pp. 30 - 47
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The meltdown at the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (March 2011) provided a trigger to contribute this research about the ways in which French newspapers facilitate (or not) a public dialogue on the issue of nuclear energy. Nuclear power not only generates over 75% of the electricity in France but also sustains a healthy domestic job creation program and drives nuclear technology exports. Hence, the absence of public debate amongst the French in nuclear energy over the long term is not surprising. Against this backdrop of French nuclear interests and post Fukushima, this paper presents a French language computer-mediated discourse analysis on nuclear debates and discussions taking place online in the hybrid public sphere. This space straddles user-generated content in the public comment spaces of newspapers embracing the spectrum of political persuasions (Le Figaro, Le Monde and Liberation) and social media. Qualitative and quantitative research methods uncover citizen interactions within the online public sphere comprising newspapers. Findings illuminate the progress of deliberations on nuclear power in online newspapers following a process of agenda setting through news stories, providing space for public dialogue and the digital curating of social media commentary. Furthermore, the research reveals the relevance of the Habermasian public sphere concept within the context of online newspapers. Key learning for the role of the media in fostering the democratic process using social media and insights for the political communications landscape within the context of the nuclear debate compliment the research.
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