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Agenda-Setting Theory

The Agenda-setting Function of Mass Media

The agenda-setting theory suggests media institutions shape the political debate by choosing which topics and issues should feature in the news broadcasts. If a story is on the front-page and getting plenty of airtime, the audience will assume it is an important issue that needs serious attention.

Our opinion will also be influenced by the representation of the people and places in those reports.

From local-interest stories to investigations into issues that affect the whole nation, the latest crime statistics, entertainment reviews, opinion pieces and editorials, special reports about advances in science and technology, sports headlines, and the weather forecast, we all rely on news organisations to provide us with the facts and figures about the world. However, according to the agenda-setting theory, the broadcast media can make us think certain issues are more significant than other items because of the coverage they receive.

The following guide will introduce you to some of the key aspects of this agenda-setting function of mass media.

The Original Study

In order to investigate mass media’s ability to set the agenda, Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw compared what voters believed were the key issues of the 1968 presidential campaign in America to the political content of the daily newspapers, magazines and the evening news broadcasts on television.

Richard Nixon campaigning in Chicago
Richard Nixon campaigning in Chicago

All the participants came from just five precincts in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. By limiting the study to one community, the authors were able to reduce the impact of some variables that might skew the data, such as regional differences and media output. Although the geographical spread was narrow, there was still enough economic and racial diversity in the sample for meaningful analysis.

The authors of the study coded the issues into fifteen categories, such as foreign policy and civil rights. The media reports were divided into “major” and “minor” levels of coverage. For example, “major” coverage in print media included the lead story on the front page or discussion in the editorial section. If the campaign issue was the lead story on the evening news or a report that was more than 45 seconds long, it would also be considered “major”.

Finally, in the 100 interviews completed, each respondent outlined what they thought were the most important issues of the election campaign.

Results

Rather than actual political issues, a “considerable amount of the news” discussed the success of the campaigns and the candidates’ chances of winning the election. You will not be surprised to learn the candidates also liked to attack each other’s credibility and fitness for office.

The following table, however, shows the emphasis each party did place on the different issues as reflected in the mass media:

table of results

When this dataset was compared to what the voters considered were the main issues of the campaign, there was a positive correlation (over +.96) for both “major” and “minor” news reports.

Obviously, voters pay more attention to the issues being addressed by their preferred party, which the authors defined as selective perception, but there was still a very strong relationship between the media’s overall, or composite, emphasis on certain campaign topics and the participants’ own concerns.

The evidence in this study that voters tend to share the media’s composite definition of what is important strongly suggests an agenda-setting function of the mass media.

McCombs and Maxwell

In conclusion, if foreign policy is featured in the news more than any other issue, the audience are more likely to think foreign policy is the defining issue of the election campaign. This is the agenda-setting function of mass media.

Public Opinion

Does it really matter if the media influences our perception of an election campaign by raising the profile of one issue while marginalising others?

In his most famous publication, Walter Lippmann (1922) wrote how the “established leaders of any organization… have a very great deal of control over the access to the facts”. They also have to “consciously” decide which facts to reveal to the public. Therefore, if the media need to consider their own “safety” when reporting political issues, can audiences really trust the news they read in the papers or the bulletins they watch on television?

Since news organisations act in their own self-interest, we do need to think carefully about how they shape public opinion and set the agenda because they might be promoting values which will not benefit the audience.

Lippmann also described the media’s use of stereotypes and slogans to encode messages in their broadcasts. Reducing issues to soundbites is another reason audiences should be wary of the press and the agenda they set because we are not getting all the facts and figures. You can find out more about his concept in our introduction to framing in the media.

You should also read our guide to moral panics which describes the role the media plays in creating public outrage towards certain issues with their ratings-grabbing headlines and exaggerated reporting of events.

Manufacturing Consent

In “Public Opinion”, Walter Lippmann was interested the media’s role in the “manufacture of consent” between the dominant ideology of the ruling elite and the opinions of ordinary citizens. He highlighted the fact newspapers received their stories from the press agents employed by the great corporations and then newspaper reporters quickly reworked the publicity material into a narrative that was ready for print.

This cosy relationship between PR agencies, marketing teams and broadcast media is certainly true in today’s media landscape.

In their book, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media”, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988) used Lippmann’s ideas to develop their own propaganda model of the media. They argued the media serves a “societal purpose” which is to defend the “economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups” and deliver “bread” and “circuses” to the remaining 80% of the population. News organisations perpetuate this inequality “through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises”.

We are simply encouraged to eat the “bread” and enjoy the “circus” because the mass media wants to maintain their advertising revenue. When setting the agenda, their institutional bias “robs the public of a chance to understand the real world”.

The “Controlled Experiment”

When McCombs and Maxwell were reviewing the issues covered by the media and raised in their questionnaires, foreign policy appeared at the top of the frequency table. In 1968, Richard Nixon narrowly won the popular vote by promising to bring “peace and honor” to Vietnam. Americans were desperate to find a way out of the Vietnam quagmire and Nixon was determined to bring the troops home.

However, you may have seen the comparisons being made between the helicopters rescuing American citizens from the embassies in Vietnam and Afghanistan:

helicopter above the US embassy in Saigon
Saigon 1975
helicopter above the US embassy in Kabul
Kabul 2021

Critics of both the Richard Nixon and Joe Biden administrations argued this is devastating evidence of their failed foreign policies. Many people viewed these events as humiliating defeats and would demand the presidents take responsibility for their decisions.

Interestingly, Herman and Chomsky were able to look back the footage and headlines from the 1970s in what they called a “controlled experiment”. They argued there were much more scandalous events happening during Nixon’s presidency, but they gained “only limited media attention”. It wasn’t the disastrous conclusion to the Vietnam War or despicable genocide in Cambodia that forced Nixon to resign. It was the cover-up of his involvement with the Watergate scandal that led to his downfall.

Nixon only resigned when he became a threat to the powerful political elite. Herman and Chomsky offered this as an example of the media’s ability to set the agenda and manipulate public opinion.

Types of Agenda Setting

Although we have only explored the broadcast media’s ability to determine the agenda by emphasisng certain issues, Rogers and Dearing (1988) identified three different types of agenda setting:

  1. Policy agenda-setting – the public and media agendas influence decisions being made by the political elite.
  2. Media agenda-setting – journalists, editors, newsroom staff and media institutions shape the political reality by choosing which stories to broadcast
  3. Public agenda-setting – the public determines the agenda.

In media studies, we focus on mass media’s capacity to determine the agenda and if the audience really are passive consumers of the news.

Conclusion

There is no doubt the media are a major source of national political information. In fact, we really only see and hear our elected officials when they appear in front of the cameras. Millions of people in the UK still buy a newspaper in the morning or switch on their television to watch the evening bulletins. Dedicated news channels and online resources are always there to keep us up to date.

Although Maxwell and McCombs’ study did not prove the media could set the agenda, we need to be aware that these institutions actively select particular issues to report. This will have some impact on what we think is important.

In our guide to the two-step flow theory of communication, we summarised how the mass media’s immediate influence on the audience might be limited to opinion leaders who then shared their views with the opinion followers in their social network. Other studies suggest voters do learn a lot about where the candidates stand on some important campaign issues. Either way, the media’s agenda-setting function has a profound effect on public opinion and how we are governed.

Influencing the issues the public should be discussing is considered to be the first level of agenda-setting. Manipulating our interpretation of the issues, or framing, is the second level of agenda-setting. If you would like to know more about how the media can influence the audience’s interpretation of an event, read our introduction to framing in the media.

Goffman, E. (1974): “Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organisation of Experience”.
Lippmann, W. (1921): “Public Opinion”.
Herman, E.S. & Chomsky, N. (1988): “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media”
McCombs, M.E. & Shaw, D.L. (1972): “The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media”.
Rogers, E. & Dearing, J (1988): “Agenda-setting research: Where has it been, where is it going?”

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