Thursday, March 26, 2009

Agenda-setting theory

The agenda-setting theory is the theory that the mass-news media have a large influence on diences by their choice of what stories to consider newsworthy and how much prominence and space to give them. Agenda-setting theory’s central axiom is salience transfer, or the ability of the mass media to transfer importance of items on their mass agendas to the public agendas.


The media agenda is the set of issues addressed by media sources and the public agenda which are issues the public consider important. Agenda-setting theory was introduced in 1972 by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in their ground breaking study of the role of the media in 1968 presidential campaign in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The theory explains the correlation between the rate at which media cover a story and the extent that people think that this story is important. This correlation has been shown to occur repeatedly.

In the dissatisfaction of the magic bullet theory, McCombs and Shaw introduced agenda-setting theory in the Public Opinion Quarterly. The theory was derived from their study that took place in Chapel Hill, NC, where the researchers surveyed 100 undecided voters during the 1968 presidential campaign on what they thought were key issues and measured that against the actual media content. The ranking of issues was almost identical, and the conclusions matched their hypothesis that the mass media positioned the agenda for public opinion by emphasizing specific topics.[4] Subsequent research on agenda-setting theory provided evidence for the cause-and-effect chain of influence being debated by critics in the field.

One particular study made leaps to prove the cause-effect relationship. The study was conducted by Yale researchers, Shanto Iyengar, Mark Peters, and Donald Kinder. The researchers had three groups of subjects fill out questionnaires about their own concerns and then each group watched different evening news programs, each of which emphasized a different issue. After watching the news for four days, the subjects again filled out questionnaires and the issues that they rated as most important matched the issues they viewed on the evening news. The study demonstrated a cause-and-effect relationship between media agenda and public agenda. Since the theory’s conception, more than 350 studies have been performed to test the theory. The theory has evolved beyond the media's influence on the public's perceptions of issue salience to political candidates and corporate reputation.


The agenda-setting function has multiple components:

* Media agenda are issues discussed in the media, such as newspapers, television, and radio.
* Public agenda are issues discussed and personally relevant to members of the public.
* Policy agenda are issues that policy makers consider important, such as legislators.
* Corporate agenda are issues that big business and corporations consider important, including corporations.

These four agendas are interrelated. The two basic assumptions underlie most research on agenda-setting are that the press and the media do not reflect reality, they filter and shape it, and the media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues.


Research has focused on characteristics of audience, the issues, and the media that might predict variations in the agenda setting effect.

Research done by Weaver in 1977 suggested that individuals vary on their need for orientation. Need for orientation is a combination of the individual’s interest in the topic and uncertainty about the issue. The higher levels of interest and uncertainty produce higher levels of need for orientation. So the individual would be considerably likely to be influenced by the media stories (psychological aspect of theory).

Research performed by Zucker in 1978 suggested that an issue is obtrusive if most members of the public have had direct contact with it, and less obtrusive if audience members have not had direct experience. This means that agenda setting results should be strongest for unobtrusive issues because audience members must rely on media for information on these topics.

Levels of agenda setting

The first-level agenda setting is most traditionally studied by researchers. In this level the media use objects or issues to influence the public. In this level the media suggest what the public should think about (amount of coverage). In second-level agenda setting, the media focuses on the characteristics of the objects or issues. In this level the media suggest how the people should think about the issue. There are two types of attributes: cognitive (subtantative, or topics) and affective (evaluative, or positive, negative, neutral). Intermedia agenda setting involves salience transfer among the media.Coleman and Banning 2006; Lee 2005; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996


The theory is used in political advertising, political campaigns and debates, business news and corporate reputation, business influence on federal policy, legal systems, trials, role of groups, audience control, public opinion, and public relations.

Strengths and weaknesses of theory

It has explanatory power because it explains why most people prioritize the same issues as important. It also has predictive power because it predicts that if people are exposed to the same media, they will feel the same issues are important. It can be proven false. If people aren’t exposed to the same media, they won’t feel the same issues are important. Its meta-theoretical assumptions are balanced on the scientific side and it lays groundwork for further research. Furthermore, it has organizing power because it helps organize existing knowledge of media effects.

There are also limitations, such as media users may not be as ideal as the theory assumes. People may not be well-informed, deeply engaged in public affairs, thoughtful and skeptical. Instead, they may pay only casual and intermittent attention to public affairs and remain ignorant of the details. For people who have made up their minds, the effect is weakened. News media cannot create or conceal problems, they may only alter the awareness, priorities and salience people attached to a set of problems. Research has largely been inconclusive in establishing a causal relationship between public salience and media coverage.