Agenda-Setting Theory

Barbara DeSanto. Encyclopedia of Public Relations. Editor: Robert L Heath, Volume 1, Sage Reference, 2005.

The focus of social science and the new field of mass media research on the social and psychological effects of new, widespread media technologies and vehicles dominated communication theory and research during the first 50 years of the 20th century. In mid-century, however, University of North Carolina researcher Maxwell McCombs and his partner Donald Shaw returned to an original theme focusing on the power and effects of media itself. Their three presidential election studies explored the relationship between media presentations of news and the resulting importance recipients of that news assigned to it. Thus was born the theory of agenda setting, which McCombs continued to study for the next four decades. This theory advances the theme that reporters serve as gatekeepers to filter news events and by their reporting set an agenda. The agenda results from the kind and amount of attention that are given to news events, especially in the context of elections, where candidates chase news to keep their views before the voters.

The original agenda-setting proposition was a direct reflection of 1920s public opinion scholar Walter Lippman’s statement that the press formed “pictures in our heads” (Lowery & DeFleur, 1995, p. 266). McCombs and Shaw tested that idea in an exploratory study of the 1968 presidential election coverage in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. What they discovered was a high correlation between what the news media reported as issues and what voters identified as issues. Their findings helped clarify the definition of agenda setting—focusing on the cognitive (awareness) level rather than the affective (feeling) level; in other words, media make voters aware of the issues, but do not tell them how to think or feel about the issues. Also identified were suggestions about media’s limitations in the process, specifically the impossible task for media outlets of covering all issues. These findings refocused attention on the media as a powerful force in its own right, rather than just another variable in the viewers’ social and psychological processes.

McCombs and Shaw then used the 1972 presidential election to conduct a more comprehensive study of agenda setting in Charlotte, North Carolina. They expanded the scope of the 1968 study to include voters’ information from other people as well as from the media, voters’ own personal characteristics, the influence of time on setting agendas, and the role of politics in agenda setting. This study confirmed the general hypothesis about creating awareness from the 1968 study and led them to concentrate on awareness and information as critical stages in opinion formation. It also reconfirmed media limitations in covering all events and issues, and clarified how these limitations influenced the complex process of how and why media make decisions to cover or not cover certain issues.

Next came the study of the entire 1976 presidential election year in three communities: Indianapolis, Indiana; Evanston, Illinois; and Lebanon, New Hampshire. This study revealed more contributing factors: (1) newspapers and television influence voters more in the early campaign stages; (2) voters did seem to rank the importance of issues in the same sequence as the media did; and (3) voters with personal characteristics such as higher educational levels, more political knowledge, and more interest in political matters were more inclined to use media on a regular basis, making them more likely to be influenced by the media.

These three studies spawned more than 200 studies exploring agenda setting during the next 25 years. Significant studies include the following:

  • Doris Graber’s 1980 study looked specifically at the strength of the media’s influence on voters’ judgments; she found that the influence varied depending on environmental circumstances as well as media content.
  • Dominic Larsorsa and Wayne Wanta’s 1990 study added interpersonal experience to the agenda-setting paradigm of newspaper and television news on issues’ importance.
  • Scott Hays and Henry Glick’s 1997 study extended the agenda-setting idea from its news effects to policy adoption effects, and concluded that when environmental conditions in the political entity (the state) and media influences are similar and convincing, “the policy in question is more likely to be adopted” (p. 511).

McCombs then expanded his study to the international arena, studying the 1996 general election in Pamplona, Spain; the 1994 Taipei mayoral election; and the 1993 Japanese general election. He concluded that the idea of what the media presents to voters as issues holds across cultural differences.

McCombs identified two levels of agenda setting: a level that embodies the original concept that media tells voters what to think about, and a second level that adds the idea that media select attributes to cover to the exclusion of others, creating a way of thinking about what is presented.

From his extensive research, McCombs further refined the roles of agenda setting in terms of how the news media builds consensus. He suggested the media play four roles in agenda setting and thus must exhibit four traits to build informed communities:

  1. The media should be professionally detached, reporting the facts and not determining the pros and cons of issues.
  2. One of the functions of news media is to recognize their targeted involvement in putting issues on the agenda.
  3. The media are the precursors of issues.
  4. The long-term effect of media involvement in issues is the creation of a public agenda.

Criticisms of the agenda-setting focus range from the strength of the media influence to recognition of the effects of interviewing variables on voters’ attitudes and behaviors. Everett Rogers and James Dearing identified three distinct agendas: media agendas, public priorities, and policy priorities. They contended that the three agendas interact at various times and to various degrees, rather than assuming that the media agenda is always the dominant factor. Denis McQuail claimed that there is insufficient evidence to show a causal connection between different issue agendas, and that the perspective needs more long-term information on party platforms correlated with long-term public opinion panel data.

Sharon Lowery and Melvin DeFleur developed a list of concerns related to the agenda-setting concept, including the influence of different audience categories, the individual characteristics of voters, the role and influence of interpersonal communication on voters’ opinions, differences in the importance of issues, and the effects of political candidate advertising in relation to news coverage.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of the agenda-setting hypothesis is the variety of related theories and perspectives it has spawned. The following studies can all trace their theoretical foundations to agenda setting.

Shanton Iynegar and Donald Kinder’s 1987 work described media priming as “an extension of agenda setting (that) addresses the impact of news coverage on the weight assigned to specific issues” (McQuail, 2000, p. 456). They concluded, for example, that priming in news portrayals causes politicians to try to associate themselves with the issues they appear strongest on and disassociate or distance themselves from issues on which they appear weaker to create congruence with the perspectives that the media have presented.

Dearing and Rogers combined agenda setting with other media effects, such as bandwagon, spiral of silence, diffusion of news, and media gatekeeping, in an effort to include the social and psychological components of the social science realm.

Framing theory, however, is one of the most visible extensions of agenda-setting theory. Originally proposed by James Tankard, Laura Hendrickson, Jackie Silberman, Kriss Bliss, and Salma Ghanem in 1991, the concept holds that entities can create a media frame to convey a central idea in a chosen context; in other words, they can stage the idea and plan the format in advance. Robert Entman advanced the framing idea to include highlighting certain elements within the frame—in essence, including the most salient ideas to the targeted audience while excluding others.

These adaptations of agenda setting have moved the concept of media influence into the repertoires of other media practitioners, particularly in public relations and advertising, which rely on creating awareness as a condition for motivating behavior.

McCombs is still involved in exploring and refining the future of agenda setting. In a turn-of-the-century review of his work, he outlined two major directions he sees for agenda setting. First, agenda-setting research will continue to move from its journalistic roots to other areas such as public relations and advertising: “Public issues are not the only objects that can be studied from the agenda-setting perspective” (McCombs, 2000, n.p.). Second, agenda-setting research will continue to study the relationships among factors influencing individuals’ decisions on how to vote and other issues.

In addition to McCombs’s defined directions, a third major direction should be considered: the international study of agenda-setting effects. McCombs’s own Spanish election research and other scholars’ work in different cultural and political settings provides yet another vast arena to explore how media and people interact to decide what’s important and how to think about it.