Agenda Setting

Wayne Wanta. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.

Agenda setting is a concept that explores effects of exposure to news media. The logic behind agenda setting is that the news media do not necessarily tell people what to think but instead influence what people think about—they are an influence on the public’s perception of which issues are important. The agenda-setting effect involves social learning—individuals learn the relative importance of a menu of issues based on how much coverage those issues receive in the news media. Since the initial study conducted during the 1968 U.S. presidential election (McCombs and Shaw, 1972), several hundred research studies have examined this process, making it one of the most thoroughly researched theories in the journalism and mass communication field.

Agenda setting has been a remarkably flexible theoretical approach. Researchers have applied the agenda-setting theoretical framework to studies involving such topics as content analyses of news coverage on a single issue and experiments examining information processing of news content.

The process of agenda setting begins with coverage of a particular issue. For example, a local newspaper could decide to run a series of stories dealing with why we need strict gun control laws. The paper’s readers would be exposed to the stories. The stories would not necessarily lead readers to believe that the United States needs strict gun control laws. Rather, the effect of the stories would be to raise the salience of gun control as an issue in readers’ minds. The coverage would lead readers to raise gun control on their own agenda of issues with which they are concerned.

Because agenda-setting research concerns the transferal of issue salience from news media to the public, analyses often combine two research methodologies: a content analysis of media coverage and responses to a public opinion survey. Many studies employ a survey item commonly used in Gallup polls. This “most important problem” question asks respondents: “What is the number one problem facing our country today?” Responses to this open-ended question are then used to form the public agenda.

Agenda-setting research can be grouped into five categories: original tests of the hypothesis, contingent conditions affecting the magnitude of agenda-setting effects, influences on the media agenda, consequences of agenda setting, and second-level agenda setting.

Original Hypothesis

The original hypothesis emerged at a time when media effects research was struggling. Prior research in the 1950s and early 1960s consistently found minimal effects of mass media. Many of these studies, however, were looking for behavioral effects of mass communication—notably, media influence on voting behavior. Early agenda-setting researchers, however, examined a different effect of mass media—a cognitive effect in which individuals learn about the important issues of the day from media coverage. Thus, instead of a powerful (behavioral) effect of media, agenda-setting researchers were proposing a moderate (cognitive) effect.

Agenda-setting researchers have examined this moderate effect using many different methodologies. At the heart of the analyses has been a comparison of two issue agendas—the media agenda, or those issues receiving news coverage, and the public agenda, or the list of issues perceived as important by the public. Research centers on how issue salience is transferred from the media to the public.

The original agenda-setting hypothesis proposed an analysis of an “agenda” of issues—or a series of issues. Some researchers, however, have conducted analyses employing a single issue. Single issue studies are especially effective at examining agenda-setting effects across time—how the rise and fall of media coverage coincides with the parallel rise and fall of public concern about the issue. Issues examined in agenda-setting research have included the economy, the environment, civil rights, and Watergate.

Researchers also have employed different units of analysis. Some studies focus on the issue as the unit of analysis by aggregating survey respondents—grouping individuals according to the issue that they believe is the most important problem. Other studies examine differences across individuals—which personal characteristics play a role in the agenda-setting process. Finally, agenda-setting effects have been studied in many different countries and cultures. In addition to the United States, these include Taiwan, Germany, Sweden, Australia, South Korea, China, Argentina, and Japan, among others.

Contingent Conditions

From the onset, researchers have sought to discover variables that either enhance or inhibit the agenda-setting effect. Even early researchers acknowledged that effects were not uniform across all individuals. Wanta (1997), for example, tested a model of agenda setting in which attitudes toward news media led to reliance on media for information about issues. This reliance led to exposure to the media, which in turn led to agenda-setting effects. Also impacting the agenda-setting process were interpersonal communication and political attitudes. If individuals talked often with others about issues that received a great deal of coverage in the news (e.g., the economy), this provided a second exposure to information about the issues and thus increased the agenda-setting impact. On the other hand, if individuals talked often with others about issues not in the news media, issues that received little media coverage (e.g., AIDS), this provided an issue agenda that conflicted with the media agenda and thus lessened the agenda-setting effect. In addition, people highly interested in politics were more likely to attend to media messages and therefore become influenced by them.

Weaver (1997) suggested a similar process is at work. His “need for orientation” concept predicted that if individuals had high uncertainty about issues and were highly interested in issues (issues had high relevance to them), they would be highly motivated to use the news media and thus demonstrate strong agenda-setting influences. Uncertainty and relevance therefore played key roles in the agenda-setting process through the need for orientation.

Educational level appears to be especially important. Studies have consistently found the strongest agenda-setting effects among highly educated survey respondents.

Influences on the Media Agenda

Several agenda-setting researchers have examined how the media agenda is constructed through news gathering routines. As these routines make abundant use of sources, important sources, such as the U.S. President, can impact the news media’s issue agenda. One such study examined a series of presidential State of the Union addresses and whether the news media influenced issues mentioned in the presidential speeches, or if the speeches influenced subsequent media coverage (Wanta, Stephenson, Turk, and McCombs 1989). The findings were mixed. The issues emphasized in President Nixon’s speech influenced subsequent media coverage in 1970. President Carter, on the other hand, was influenced by media coverage leading up to his speech in 1978. In other words, President Carter was reacting to the media agenda. President Reagan appeared to have influenced newspaper coverage but was, in turn, influenced by television news coverage. Thus, Reagan was reacting to newscast coverage, but print media were following Reagan’s issue priorities.

The relationship among the President, press, and public has often been termed “agenda-building.” Lang and Lang (1983), in their examination of President Nixon and the Watergate scandal, argued that the President, press, and public are highly connected. A President may discuss an issue, which will in turn receive media coverage which leads to public concern. That concern may lead to additional reactions from sources, which will lead to additional media coverage. This process will continue until one of the three actors tires of an issue.

Other researchers have examined coverage of city council issues, and how U.S. automakers’ executives influenced news coverage of international trade. Public relations practitioners also have been shown to impact media coverage. Broadly, most studies demonstrate strong influences of sources on the media agenda.

In addition, some research has examined intermedia agenda setting, or how elite media set the agenda of other news organizations. The New York Times and Associated Press news service, for example, often impact coverage patterns of other media. Intermedia agenda setting has been examined through the Internet as well. Journalists routinely monitor Internet news sites and blogs for news story ideas. In turn, these websites and blogs monitor traditional media for their topics. The relationship between the traditional media and Internet, then, appears to be reciprocal if not circular.

Consequences of Agenda Setting

While research into the sources of the media agenda examine how the news is constructed—analyses of a process leading up to the press-public interface—research dealing with consequences of agenda setting investigates what happens later in the process, after the media agenda impacts the public. There are two main substreams in this area.

First, some studies have examined behavioral effects that follow the typical agenda-setting influences. Does media coverage ultimately motivate the public into action? In other words, research seeks out potential behavioral effects, such as voting behavior, which was largely abandoned after much early research (prior to the 1960s) showed minimal effects of mass communication. Other behavioral variables examined in agenda-setting research include writing letters to the editor, posting messages on electronic bulletin boards, and purchasing of products—all of which have been linked to media coverage.

Other studies have examined whether public officials act on issues or concerns brought to the fore by agenda setting. Such “policy agenda-setting” studies examine how policymakers take cues from both media coverage and public opinion to propose laws aimed at relieving a societal problem. But thus far such research has been scant, possibly because many issues receive inconsistent coverage over time. Thus, many policy studies are more anecdotal than empirical. They have examined media coverage and subsequent policy actions for issues such as child abuse and governmental corruption. Another reason for the limited research in this area is that public officials, the news media, and the public tend to interact with each other in the agenda-building process—creating a circular relationship that is difficult to track.

Studies of the consequences of agenda setting demonstrate the importance of the news media. Not only do the issues covered in the news raise the perceived importance of the issues among the public, but they often mobilize both the public and public officials to take action.

Second-Level Agenda Setting

The newest agenda-setting research involves the study of a “second level.” Instead of an agenda of issues, second-level agenda-setting research investigates an agenda of attributes—the characteristics of people, places, and things in the news.

Second-level agenda-setting research is closely related to framing. Framing describes the process in which the media “frame” issues in the news by concentrating on certain elements but ignoring others. It is impossible to cover every aspect of every news story, so reporters must choose what to include and eliminate. Neither can the news media include every characteristic of objects in the news. Again, reporters must choose among attributes of objects. The public learns the significance of these attributes based on how often they appear in the news. Thus, the media again set the public agenda, here an agenda of attributes, through their coverage.

Researchers have commonly examined two dimensions of second-level agenda-setting research: substantive and affective attributes. Substantive attributes involve information about qualities of newsmakers, such as a presidential candidate’s experience with foreign affairs. Affective attributes involve positive, neutral, and negative qualities. In other words, the substantive attributes deal with factual information and affective attributes deal with evaluations of newsmakers.

McCombs, Lopez-Escobar, and Llamas (2000) found support for media influence on both of these dimensions in their study during the Spanish national election of 1996. First, they found that public perceptions of substantive attributes were closely related to media coverage of those attributes. Likewise, they found that public perceptions of affective attributes were highly correlated with media coverage. Thus, the public linked both information about candidate characteristics and positive/negative evaluations of candidates to media coverage.

Second-level agenda setting has largely concerned people in the news as the object of the analysis, including analyses of the President or candidates in elections. Recent studies have investigated media coverage and public perceptions of other objects, such as countries and large corporations. Issues also can be examined as an object, with subissues acting as attributes. The economy, for example, could be an object, with inflation, unemployment, the budget deficit, gasoline prices, and so on, as substantive attributes.


Agenda setting has been an important theory in mass communication research for a third of a century. It has retained its importance even with the emergence of the Internet as a source of information that differs greatly from traditional news media. And it has evolved to include a second-level of study—an agenda of attributes. Indeed, there are many possible agendas and many possible objects that can be the focus of research. Agenda setting highlights a process of media effects that underlines the importance of the news business. Issues covered in news stories become those that the public believes are important.