Agenda Setting Theory

Maxwell MaxCombs and Donald Shaw along with G. Ray Funkhouser prepared a mass media theory known as Agenda Setting Theory in 1968. The study was conducted on North Carolina voters done in 1968 presidential election. The conclusion was later published as an article in 1972 in  "Public Opinion Quarterly", which was later revised in 1976.

This study correlated what people thought and media showed as the most important issue in the election. The theory put forward the idea that news media creates public agenda by making people think things they want to show. For example, a media stressing on what type of work each gender should do, completely neglecting the idea of gender equality, creates similar mindset in the people. 

Media provide cues to public which tells them where they should focus their attention. This way political reality is set by the media. Similarly, another media theorist, Walter Lippman, has also written about the Agenda Setting Theory in 1922.

[Related Reading: Gatekeeping Theory]

Agenda setting theory

“This impact of the mass media- the ability to effect cognitive change among individuals, to structure their thinking- has been labeled the agenda-setting function of mass communication. Here may lie the most important effect of mass communication, its ability to mentally order and organize our world for us. In short, the mass media may not be successful in telling us what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about.”
-McCombs and Shaw

Concepts in Agenda Setting Theory

Mass communication creates mass culture. Agenda setting is the ability of media to determine salience of issues with news, through a cognitive process called “accessibility”, which is the process of retrieving an issue in the memory.

Setting an agenda is also influenced by a person’s perception to certain beliefs. For example, a person who is highly sensitive to political issues would regard political news as important.

People have a choice to believe in media or not but  people’s thinking of obstructiveness and un-obstructiveness of an issue affects it a lot. If the issue affects a large number of people, like increase in price of gas, it will get more coverage as well as a place in the human memory.

So, any issue people would think as important is highly dependent not only on the length of broadcast but also from its position and amount of information. For instance, most people take front page news in newspapers to be more important than other pages. Similarly, if a news article is published frequently and in different media at once, the news gets more value. Media shows its own biased views which is adopted by the audience and deprive the audience from self-thought. Agenda setting comes after gate keeping, which is editing a news by gatekeepers, like editors, before it reaches to the general audience.

Concept of “framing” to the theory was added to this theory in 1998 by McCombs. This concept argues that media can not only direct people on what to think about but also how to think about an issue. It does so by focusing on a particular aspect of the news. For example, agenda setting theory only describes the water scarcity of a place but framing theory talks about how the government is causing water scarcity that defines how people take the issue to be the government's fault. Another theory called Second Level Agenda Setting has been constructed by extending this theory.

[Related Reading: Framing Theory]

media, agenda setting theory

Assumptions of Agenda Setting Theory

  • Media distorts reality by filtering and reshaping
  • Media concentrating on specific issues make people perceive that the issues are more important

Levels of Agenda Setting

  • Deciding what common subjects are important by using objects and issues
  • Deciding parts of subject which are important and how people should think about it

Types of Agenda Setting

Types of agenda setting according to Rogers and Dearing in their book Agenda Setting Research are:

  • Public agenda setting: Public agenda is the dependent variable
  • Media agenda setting: Media's agenda is the dependent variable
  • Policy agenda setting: Policy makers' agenda is the dependent variable

Parts of Agenda Setting Theory

Parts of agenda setting according to Rogers and Dearing in their book Agenda Setting Research are:

  • Importance of issues
  • Impact over public thinking or public agenda
  • Effects on policy agenda

Examples of Agenda Setting Theory

The Clinton scandal and the Watergate scandal are some of the prime examples.

The Clinton scandal, sexual affair of Bill Clinton (U.S. President) and Monica Lewinsky (an intern), created a media frenzy and became sensational news for years. Media gave full pages news as top stories. The media influenced the mindset of people so much and the news got viral to result in a presidential impeachment. And later, Clinton was acquitted for the crime.

Bill Clinton, Agenda setting theory, the clinton scandal

The Watergate scandal was also exposed by media and blown out of proportions. The issue of burglars breaking in at the watergate office complex was exaggerated by involving President Richard M. Nixon in this scandal. Media created different myths like corruption, the post uncovering the story in the beginning before police, and an increase in enrollment in journalism universities due to the incident.

Criticisms of Agenda Setting Theory

  • Agenda setting of any media or news article is difficult to measure.
  • Surveys and studies are very subjective and not very accurate. There are too many variables to consider.
  • People have many options to read the same stories from different angles due to new media nowadays. So people have various choices on what to see or hear.
  • Nowadays, media uses two way communication unlike when this theory was developed.
  • Agenda setting has many benefits as media influences public and public influences policy.
  • People might not look at the details and miss some important points resulting in misunderstanding.
  • Media effect does not work for people who have fixed mindset.
  • Media is not able to create information but is able to change the priority of the information to the public mindset.