CYPRUS INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY
Institute of Graduate Studies and Research
AGENDA- SETTING THEORY
IDORNIGIE OMONE JANE
The Agenda Setting theory was first put forth by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in 1972 in Public Opinion Quarterly. They originally suggested that the media sets the public agenda, in the sense that they may not exactly tell you what to think, but they may tell you what to think about. Agenda-setting theory describes the ability of the news media to influence the importance placed on the topics of the public agenda. With agenda setting being a social science theory, it also attempts to make predictions. That is, if a news item is covered frequently and prominently, the audience will regard the issue as more important. In 1968, McCombs and Shaw demonstrated a strong correlation coefficient between what 100 residents of Chapel Hill, North Carolina thought was the most important election issue and what the local and national news media reported was the most important issue. By comparing the salience of issues in news content with the public’s perceptions of the most important election issue, McCombs and Shaw were able to determine the degree to which the media determines public opinion. Studies have shown that what the media decides to expose in certain countries correlates with their views on things such as politics, economy and culture. Countries that tend to have more political power are more likely to receive media exposure. Financial resources, technologies, foreign trade and money spent on the military can be some of the main factors that explain coverage inequality.
Agenda -setting assumes that there is a process by which the media agenda influences the audience agenda over time. What we know about the world is solely based on what the media decides to tell us. More particularly, the result of this contemplated view of the world is that the transcendence of the media strongly influences the transcendence of the public. Elements obtrusive on the media agenda become obtrusive in the public mind. Social scientists examining this agenda-setting influence of the news media on the public usually have focused on public issues. The agenda of a news organization is found in its pattern of coverage on public issues over some period of time, a week, a month and an entire year. Over this period of time, whatever it might be, a few issues are highlighted. Some receive light coverage while many are seldom or never mentioned. It should be noted that the use of term “agenda” here is purely descriptive. According to infoAmerica “There is no pejorative implication that a news organization has an agenda that it relentlessly pursues as a premeditated goal. The media agenda presented to the public results from countless day to-day decisions by many different journalists and their supervisors about the news of the moment”.
HISTORY OF AGENDA-SETTING THEORY
According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agenda-setting_theory, the theory of agenda-setting can be traced to the first chapter of Walter Lippmann’s 1922 book, Public Opinion. In that chapter, “The World Outside And The Pictures In Our Heads”, Lippmann argues that the mass media are the principal connection between events in the world and the images in the minds of the public. Without using the term “agenda-setting”, Walter Lippmann was writing about what we today would call “agenda-setting”. Following Lippmann, in 1963, Bernard Cohen observed that the press “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about. The world will look different to different people,” Cohen continues, “depending on the map that is drawn for them by writers, editors, and publishers of the paper they read”. As early as the 1960s, Cohen had expressed the idea that later led to formalization of agenda-setting theory by McCombs and Shaw. The stories with the strongest agenda setting influence tend to be those that involve conflict, terrorism, crime and drug issues within the United States. Those that don’t include or involve the United State and politics associate negatively with public opinion. In turn, there is less concern.
Though Maxwell McCombs already had some interest in the field, he was exposed to Cohen’s work while serving as a faculty member at UCLA, and it was Cohen’s work that heavily influenced him, and later Donald Shaw. The concept of agenda setting was launched by McCombs and Shaw during the 1968 presidential election in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They examined Lippmann’s idea of construction of the pictures in our heads by comparing the issues on the media agenda with key issues on the undecided voters’ agenda. They found evidence of agenda setting by identifying that salience of the news agenda is highly correlated to that of the voters’ agenda. McCombs and Shaw were the first to provide the field of communication with empirical evidence that demonstrated the power of mass media and its influence on the public agenda. The empirical evidence also earned this theory its credibility amongst other social scientific theories.
A relatively unknown scholar named G. Ray Funkhouser performed a study highly similar to McCombs and Shaw’s around the same time the authors were formalizing the theory. All three scholars – McCombs, Shaw, and Funkhouser – even presented their findings at the same academic conference. Funkhouser’s article was published later than McCombs and Shaw’s, and Funkhouser doesn’t receive as much credit as McCombs and Shaw for discovering agenda setting. According to Everett Rogers, there are two main reasons for this. First, Funkhouser didn’t formally name the theory. Second, Funkhouser didn’t pursue his research much past the initial article. Rogers also suggests that Funkhouser was geographically isolated at Stanford, cut off from interested researchers, whereas McCombs and Shaw had got other people interested in agenda setting research.
TYPES OF AGENDA- SETTING THEORY
There are three types of agenda setting theory identified by Rogers and Dearing namely;
public agenda setting- in this, the public’s agenda is the dependent variable (the traditional hypothesis). Understanding how public opinion is influenced by the content of the mass media has been an important concern of communication scholars. Robert E park (founder of the 1915-1935 Chicago school of sociology) who has been termed ‘the first theorist of mass communication’ expanded on the notion of how people form an acquaintance with information by studying the role of newspapers in forming public opinion. A theorist claims that the rate at which the public depends on mass media is increasing. Early empirical research result cast doubt on the mass media power to bring about audience effects. Lazersfeld and Stanton in a series of studies on the effectiveness of radio campaigns concluded that any effects of the mass media were considerably mediated by interpersonal relationships and by personal experience. Social scientist interpreted Lazersfeld’s results as proof that the mass media had only weak effects.
media agenda setting- in this, the media’s agenda is treated as the dependent variable (“agenda building”). The issue of the homogenization of the news into a set of topics addressed by all members of the news media was raised early by the Hutchins Report (Commission on Freedom of the Press, 1947). This set of topics was recognized as the media agenda. The question of who sets the media agenda and the implications of that influence for society were initially explored by Lazarsfeld and Merton ( 1948). Lazarsfeld and Merton conceived of the media issue agenda as a result of the influence that powerful groups, notably organized business, exerted as a subtle form of social control. Qualter (1985) argued that a commercially sponsored mass media system is operated by those in the ruling class of society. Therefore the media cannot be expected to question the socioeconomic structure of that society seriously. The mass media softly but firmly present the perspective of the ruling class to their audiences. These media functions are perpetuated through recruitment and the socialization of media elites, editors and journalist. In this way, the traditions, practices and values of media professionals shape the new agenda.
policy agenda setting- in this, the elite policy makers’ agendas are treated as the dependent variable (“political agenda setting”). Agenda setting researchers who conceptualize policy information as a dependent variable want to know whether the agenda items that are salient to individuals in the public also become salient to policymakers. Occasionally, policy agenda-setting researchers investigate the extent to which the media agenda influences the policy agenda. David Hume (1739/ 1896) was one of the first to propose a theory of government founded upon, and responsible to, widespread opinion. Hume extended the work of John Locke, who had posited several laws of human nature. The contribution of Hume was his theoretical development of the democratic society, the idea that widespread, supportive opinion alone was the justification by which a government is in power. Early assessments reflecting on Hume’s principle were optimistic (Dewey, 1927). Gradually, however, such optimism was replaced by skepticism, as empirical researchers began looking for evidence of a responsive government. Gabriel Almond (1950) was one of the first scholars of politics to attempt to understand the growing body of survey data and the course of foreign policy. An explanatory mechanism of a policymaker-to-public transfer suggested by Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) was a “two-step flow” of communication, whereby opinions in a society are first circulated by the media and then passed on via opinion leaders by interpersonal communication. This concept was expanded to a “four-step flow” by James Rosenau (1961) in his book Public Opinion and Foreign Policy. Rosenau played an important role in orienting policy research toward issue salience and agenda-setting: “We know practically nothing about why it is that some situations abroad never become the subject of public discussion, whereas others take hold and soon acquire the status of national issues” (Rosenau, 1961, pp. 4-5). Rosenau served another important function for later policy agenda-setting research by concentrating on the mass media and their relationships with policymakers. Cohen’s reviews (1973 / 1983) of the evidence supporting the hypothesis that foreign policy makers are responsive to public opinion concluded, “Our knowledge is partial, unsystematic, disconnected and discontinuous. We are left with the unsatisfactory conclusion that public opinion is important in the policy-making process, although we cannot say with confidence how, why or when.
The research on the effect of agenda setting compares the salience of issues in news content with the public perceptions of the most important issue, and then analyses the extent of influence by guidance of the media. There are three models assumed by Max McCombs: the awareness model, the priorities model and the salience model. Most investigations are centred on these three models. In the research, the dependent variables are media agenda, audience agenda and policy agenda as listed above in the following part. Mass communication research, Rogers and Dearing argue, has focused a great deal on public agenda setting – e.g., McCombs and Shaw, 1972 – and media agenda setting, but has largely ignored policy agenda setting, which is studied primarily by political scientists. As such, the authors suggest mass communication scholars pay more attention to how the media and public agendas might influence elite policy maker’s agendas (i.e., scholars should ask where the President or members of the U.S. Congress get their news from and how this affects their policies). Writing in 2006, Walgrave and Van Aelst took up Rogers and Dearing’s suggestions, creating a preliminary theory of political agenda setting, which examines factors that might influence elite policy makers’ agendas.
AGENDA-SETTING AS A PROCESS
Agenda setting is a process. Considering the word ‘process’,- it is a series of events and activities happening through time. Despite this, many researches of agenda setting have depended solely on one shot data collection and cross sectional data analysis which is a type of design particularly unsuited for investigation process. Agenda setting has been universally treated as one part of the general quest by mass communication scholars for media effects. This outstanding research orientation of mass communication researchers on effects has structured theory and research mainly in one direction. In the case of public agenda-setting studies, this effects orientation led away from overtime research designs, particularly in the very early research on this topic. A subsequent study of the agenda-setting process was able to;
Gather data on the media agenda and the public agenda at two points in time and then utilize cross lagged correlation analysis to gain understanding of process.
Trace agenda setting over a wider range of years
Manipulate the media agenda in a field experiment approach.
The methodological progression in agenda-setting research has been from one shot,
Cross-sectional studies, to more sophisticated research designs that allow more precise exploration of agenda-setting as a process. With the strengthening of research designs, the agenda-setting process has stood out more clearly. Sal Wen ( 1985) has pointed out that “even though most agenda-setting researchers have implicitly accepted the notion that audience issue salience is a function of media presentation over time, few researchers have tackled the problem concerning the amount of time required for the media to make an issue or a set of issues salient among the mass media audience”. Gandy ( 1982) has argued that some kinds of issues or events move easily to the public agenda, others take more time, and the theoretical base of agenda-setting research is incapable of predicting just what that optimal lag should be. Stone ( 1975) and Winter (1979), who tested several different time lags in order to identify the optimum timing for media content to influence the public agenda, however, report the optimal timing to be about two to four months.
Salwen in response to his own challenge (1986), content analyzed three Michigan newspapers for 33 weeks as to their coverage of seven environmental issues, such as disposal of wastes, quality of water, and noise pollution. The public agenda was measured by about 300 telephone interviews conducted in three waves. The week-by-week media agenda had its first effect on the public agenda after the accumulation of five to seven weeks of media coverage of an environmental issue; the peak relationship of the media agenda to the public agenda occurred after eight to ten weeks of media coverage; thereafter the correlations declined with the passage of time. “By simply keeping an issue ‘alive’ by reporting about it for some duration the media may transmit to the public more than just information, but also a subtle message concerning the legitimacy of such an issue” (Salwen, 1986). The rise, peak, and fall of the media agenda’s influence on the public agenda, Salwen (1986) argued, might be parallel to the S-curve found for the diffusion of innovations (Rogers, 1983). Only gradually does a media item spread among members of the public, creating awareness of that topic. Eventually, after two or three months, enough media coverage had accumulated for the issue to rise to high priority on the public agenda, and thereafter the issue dropped slowly on the public agenda with further media coverage decreasing more rapidly (hence the low
correlation between the media agenda and the public agenda at this final stage in the agenda-setting process).
Criticisms of Agenda setting theory
Media users are not ideal. People may not pay attention to details.
Effect is weakened for people who have made up their mind.
Media can’t create problems. They can only alter the awareness, Priority etc.
Prior to agenda setting studies, the seeds of this theoretical approach were sown by Paul Lazersfeld and Robert Merton that outlined three social functions of mass media. First, media serve a status conferral function; the mass media confer status on public issues, persons, organizations and social movement. Clearly, people who feature in media coverage are elevated to a certain status or standing among their audience. A second function of media is the enforcement of social norms; the mass media may initiate organized social action by exposing conditions which are at variance with public moralities. Lastly, media serve a narcotizing dysfunction in the sense that they occupy audience time to such an extent that little time is left for organized social and political action.
McCombs, M. (2003). The Agenda-Setting Role of the Mass Media in the Shaping of Public Opinion.
Rogers, E.M., ; Dearing, J.W. (1988). Agenda-setting research: Where has it been? Where is it going? In: Anderson, J.A. (Ed.). Communication yearbook 11 (555-594). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
McCombs, M.E. ; Shaw, D. (1972). The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media. POQ, 36; 176-187.
McCombs, M; Reynolds, A (2002). “News influence on our pictures of the world”. Media effects: Advances in theory and research.
Laughey , D. (2007). Key themes in media theory