There is no generally or accepted term or précised meaning of the term “Public Opinion”, by political scientists. However, there are many definitions of public opinion as there are many different scholars who wrote on the concept. C.A Leeds (1975), defined public opinion as “the opinions held by groups of individuals on a particular issue”.
It refers to those opinions which are relevant to the specific situation, not to all the opinions held by that set of people. V.O. key has applied the term as “those opinions held by private persons which government finds it prudent to heed”. George Huszar and Thomas Stevenson (1968), defined public opinion roughly as “the general outlook at a given time towards a certain issue of public interest”.
Thirdly, it is defined as the public or majority view on any government activities. Public opinion is from one person to another, which means that it is dynamic in nature and character. Therefore, public opinion is better summoned up as the composite reactions of the general public on issues which affect them. It can also be summarized as not what people think but, rather what in practice they want to bring into effect.
FUNCTIONS OF PUBLIC OPINION
- Some functions of public opinion are:
- It has the major function as guiding the government in the formulation of its policies.
- They provide an opportunity for the public voices to be heard on occasions other than election times.
- Through public opinions, the people will feel free to give their loyalty and support to the government.
- They act as a counter weight to pressure groups by helping to represent the views o those section of the population not adequately represented by voluntary associations.
- It help to assist political parties in planning their campaign strategies. This is because through public opinions, political parties will ascertain people’s opinions and then channel their programmes towards achieving their objectives.
FORMATION OF PUBLIC OPINION
Public opinions are formed through the following ways:
Mass media: everybody is subject to influence from television, Newspapers, Books, Radio, Films, Magazines and Journals etc. the above media help people to be aware of certain issues and to know the next line of action to be taken.
Ministry of information: it helps to shape the opinions of people in readiness to support government activities.
Political parties: political parties are seen as the agents of public opinion since they engage on public debates.
Pressure group: through association such as Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), Nigeria Bar Association, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), etc. public opinions are formed.
Rumour or gossip: public opinion can be formed by carrying rumours or gossip on certain issues.
MEASUREMENT OF PUBLIC OPINION
Public opinion can be measured in the following ways:
- It can be measured through mass media such as television, newspaper, magazines and other public conversations.
- It can be measured through people or public reactions to certain issues.
- Another way of measuring public opinion is through the conduct of election especially referendum.
- It can be measured through interviewing or distributing questionnaires to the people and getting their opinions.
- It can also be measured through the dissemination of information or circulation of rumours or gossip.
THE WEAKNESS OF PUBLIC OPINION
The weaknesses of public opinions are itemized below:
Lack of sufficient information: at times, people lack sufficient information on certain issues and as such, are not capable of forming a rational opinion.
Technicality of matters: in a situation where specialized and technical matters are to be treated, the majority of people are not qualified to express an opinion.
Another weakness of public opinion is that it has been accused of being erratic, inconsistent and conservation in nature.
Propaganda: political propaganda agencies constitute problem to the achievement of public opinion.
Complexity of society: also, because of the complexity of society, more and more people or groups stand out distinctly from the public opinion.