Agenda Setting Theory
the creation of what the public thinks is important
History and Orientation
Agenda setting describes a very powerful influence of the media – the ability to tell us what issues are important. As far back as 1922, the newspaper columnist Walter Lippman was concerned that the media had the power to present images to the public. McCombs and Shaw investigated presidential campaigns in 1968, 1972 and 1976. In the research done in 1968 they focused on two elements: awareness and information. Investigating the agenda-setting function of the mass media, they attempted to assess the relationship between what voters in one community said were important issues and the actual content of the media messages used during the campaign. McCombs and Shaw concluded that the mass media exerted a significant influence on what voters considered to be the major issues of the campaign.
Core Assumptions and Statements
Core: Agenda-setting is the creation of public awareness and concern of salient issues by the news media. Two basis assumptions underlie most research on agenda-setting: (1) the press and the media do not reflect reality; they filter and shape it; (2) media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues. One of the most critical aspects in the concept of an agenda-setting role of mass communication is the time frame for this phenomenon. In addition, different media have different agenda-setting potential. Agenda-setting theory seems quite appropriate to help us understand the pervasive role of the media (for example on political communication systems).
Statement: Bernard Cohen (1963) stated: “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.”
Source: McQuail & Windahl (1993)
Content-analysis of media, interviews of audiences.
Scope and Application
Just as McCombs and Shaw expanded their focus, other researchers have extended investigations of agenda setting to issues including history, advertising, foreign, and medical news.
McCombs and Shaw focused on the two elements: awareness and information. Investigating the agenda-setting function of the mass media in the 1968 presidential campaign, they attempted to assess the relationship between what voters in one community said were important issues and the actual content of media messages used during the campaign. McCombs and Shaw concluded that the mass media exerted a significant influence on what voters considered to be the major issues of the campaign.
Kleinnijenhuis, J. & Rietberg, E.M. (1995). Parties, media, the public and the economy: Patterns of societal agenda-setting. European journal of political research: official journal of the European Consortium for Political Research, 28(1), 95-118
McCombs, M.E. & Shaw, D. (1972). The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media. POQ, 36; 176-187.
McCombs, M.E. (1972). Mass Communication in Political Campaigns: Information, Gratification and Persuasion. In: Kline, F. & Tichenor, Ph.J. (Eds.) Current Perspectives in Mass Communication Research. Beverly Hills, CA.: Sage.
McCombs, M.E. (1982). The Agenda-Setting Approach. In: Nimmo, D. & Sanders, K. (Eds.) Handbook of Political Communication. Beverly Hills, CA.: Sage.
McCombs, M.E., & Shaw, D.L. (1972). The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36 (Summer), 176-187.
McCombs, M.E., & Weaver, D. (1973). Voters’ Need for Orientation and Use of Mass Communication. Presented at the annual conference of the International Communication Association. Montreal, Canada.
McCombs, M.E., & Weaver, D. (1985). Toward a Merger of Gratifications and Agenda-Setting Research. In: Rosengren, K.E., Wenner, L.A. & Palmgreen, P. (Eds.) Media Gratifications Research: Current Perspectives. Beverly Hills, CA.: Sage.
McCombs, M.E., & Shaw, D.L., & Weaver, D.L. (1997). Communication and Democracy: Exploring the Intellectual Frontiers in Agenda-Setting Theory. Mahwah, N.J. Lawrence Erlbaum.
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.
Rogers, E.M., Hart, W. B., & Dearing, J.W. (1997). A paradigmatic history of agenda-setting research. In Iyengar, S. & Reeves, R. (Eds.) Do the media govern? Politicians, voters, and reporters in America (225-236). Thousand Oak, CA: Sage.
Shaw, D. L. & McCombs, M. (1977). The Emergence of American Political Issues: The Agenda-Setting Function of the Press. St. Paul: West.