In a world of blogs, political analysts and 24-hour cable news channels, some people often wonder just how much the media shapes society’s perception of the world. After all, millions of people depend on news producers for information that determines the way they live, vote and behave. Does it matter that the details of a senator’s private life gets more airtime than her Congressional voting record? Are civil rights as important in an election year as the economy? Should one be as concerned about Kim Kardashian’s wedding as about political upheaval in Syria?
These are the kinds of questions that surround the theory of agenda setting. Agenda-setting theory refers to how the media’s news coverage determines which issues become the focus of public attention. This theory of mass communication was formally introduced in 1972 by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, two professors who documented a significant correlation between issues citizens of Chapel Hill, N.C., thought were important and stories presented by the local and national media. Though it’s impossible to measure the extent of the media’s influence on public opinion, agenda-setting theory has still proven valuable in understanding how mass media affects the way people view reality.
Agenda-setting theory rests on two basic assumptions. The first one states that the media filters and shapes reality instead of simply reflecting it. For example, news stories are not presented chronologically or according to the number of people affected by them, but rather in an order that a producer or editor determines to be the most “sensational,” or most appealing to audiences. The second assumption states that the more attention the media gives to certain issues, the more likely the public will be to label those issues as vital ones. In other words, agenda setting doesn’t necessarily tell people how they should think or feel about certain issues, but rather what issues they should think about.
The theory does have some scientific merit. For instance, it is based on the cognitive principle of accessibility, which refers to the memories the brain accesses when asked to retrieve information. The more a story or issue is publicized in the media, the more prominently it is stored in people’s memories. Then when people are asked to list the most important issues of the day, they are likely to respond by naming the top stories covered in the local or national news. Dozens of studies also testify to the political, legal, social and economic effects of agenda setting.
Yet agenda-setting theory often falls prey the classic “chicken or egg” conundrum that has critics asking, “Which came first, public opinion or the media’s agenda?” After all, news producers claim to cover issues based on what the public wants to hear. Marketing professionals sift through reams of Nielsen ratings, Internet polls and advertising data to determine what kinds of information the public wants and how it should be presented. Lately, with the rise of the Internet, researchers have noticed agenda setting going in reverse, in which individuals have influenced media coverage by raising awareness of issues on blogs, forums and social media sites. Some say that the initial evidence for agenda setting has been overstated.
The theory’s founders admit that the rapidly evolving world of mass communications has changed the way researchers should approach agenda-setting studies in modern times. These days, with an overwhelming amount of information available in society, people can seek out the kinds of information they want and ignore the rest. As a result, researchers must evaluate individual motives for absorbing certain news stories to determine agenda setting’s true effects.
Two motives that drive information consumption are relevance and uncertainty. People seek to learn about an issue when it affects their lives and they know little about said issue. However, it’s when relevance is low and uncertainty is high that agenda setting has the strongest effect. That’s because people with no direct connection to an issue must depend on the media to frame it appropriately. One example of agenda setting’s effects in this regard is the ongoing reference to socialism in the Obama Administration. Although the president’s policies do not, according to the Socialist Party USA, fit the definition of socialism, the media’s repeated allusions to socialism in the White House have caused many Americans to believe that President Obama is a socialist.
Of course, the media’s agenda setting doesn’t just influence public opinion; it also affects public policy and the media itself. For example, a front-page story in the New York Times is likely to be a front-page story in USA Today, a main feature on the MSNBC website and the leading report on CNN. Regional and local news organizations report on stories broadcast by national media outlets. Often, the focus of public dialogue is set by only one or two large organizations, and once an issue has captured the attention of a number of citizens, the more likely it is to inspire new laws and regulations. Thus, agenda-setting theory remains highly relevant to mass communication studies today.