Agenda-Setting Theory

of Maxwell McCombs & Donald Shaw

The power of the press in America is a primordial one.

It sets the agenda of public discussion; and this sweeping

political power is unrestrained by any law. It determines

what people will talk and think about – an authority that in other

nations is reserved for tyrants, priests, parties, and mandarins.

Theodore White

Mass media has great effect on people’s life. Every day a lot of people read thousands of newspapers, listen to the various radio stations and watch a lot of TV. Say, you are sitting at home, listening to the radio and drinking coffee in the morning. Suddenly your favorite host on the radio says: “Call us now! We are talking about problems of elementary education in the schools. Your opinion is extremely important to us.” Before these words you thought about something else, but after this you begin to think about elementary education. You realize that you have some useful thoughts and opinions about this and pick up the phone to call them. Who knows, maybe your ideas will help somebody to solve the following problem. Before you pick up the phone – think what make you do that. People on the radio decided for you what they are going to discuss today and you became their “prisoner” for the moment. It even made you do something about that (in this case – make a call.) As you can see media has the greatest impact on our lives. We discuss what we saw on TV last night or talk about the latest news we read in the newspapers. Usually we do not even think deeply why we do that. Maybe we should…

This is just what agenda-setting theory is telling about. Agenda – setting theory has been developed by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Show and it gives the opinion that no matter what you think, but matters what you think about. It is very important to realize the meaning of the word “about” in this case. The agenda-setting shows indirect, cognitive effects of mass media. The following theory boasted two attractive features: it reaffirmed the power of the press while still maintaining that individuals were free to choose.

For the first time this agenda – setting theory was mentioned by the University of Wisconsin political scientist Bernard Cohen. Actually Cohen made just a statement that “the news media may not directly affect how the public thinks about political matters, but it does affect what subjects people think about.” Then the theory was discovered by a number of scientists. They demonstrated that the power of media effects goes beyond agenda setting. The scientists Iyengar, Peters, and Kinder in 1982 first identified that people do not have to elaborate the knowledge; they should consider what more readily comes to mind. As you can see this statement somehow eases the work of people’s brain. The media is responsible for the message itself and for the importance of that message. Counting that agenda – setting theory influences individuals indirectly, the agenda of these messages should be set very carefully.

The most important and interesting aspect in agenda setting theory is framing. James Tankard, one of the leading writers on mass communication theory, defines a media frame as “the central organizing idea for news content that supplies a context and suggests what the issue is through the use of selection, emphasis, exclusion and elaboration.” Robert Entman also describes in his article clarifying the concept:

To frame is to select some aspects of a percieved reality and make them more salient in a communication text, in such a way as to promote a paricular problem definition, causual interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.

Thus we can see that framing is the reporter’s perception of the problem and how he/she presents it in the newspaper. The popularity of framing as a construct in media studies has resulted in diverse and perhaps contradictory use of the term.

Obviously, news does not select itself. So who sets the agenda for the agenda setters? One view regards a handful of news editors as the guardians, or “gate-keepers”, of political dialogue. Nothing gets put on the political agenda without the concurrence of eight men – the operation chiefs of Associated Press, the New Yourk Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, ABC, NBC, and CBS. Although there is no evidence to support right-wing conservative charges that the editors are part of a liberal, eastern-establishment conspiracy, these key decision makers are undeniably part of a media elite that does not represent a cross-section of US citizens. The media elite consists of of middle-aged Caucasian males who attend the same conferences, banquets, and parties. When one of them “puffs” a story, the rest of the nation’s media climb aboard.

Some of the examples of agenda-setting theory and how it influences people show that this theory is extremely important in communication and especially while studying media literacy. Chronic social issues are much more dependent on media coverage to raise public consciousness and conscience. For example, journalist C. J. Bosso found that news organizations were slow to react to famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s. But when the press and the television finally picked up the story, everybody began to talk about it. When the media later abandoned the issue, people concluded that the crisis was over and shifted their attention elsewhere. This study illustrates the consistent finding that most people can only concentrate on three to five new topics at a time. If the media bring a new issue to the fore, another topic will recede in the public’s consciousness. The media seem particularly effective in creating public interest in political candidates and campaign strategy. By January 1992, news commentators had decided that Bill Clinton was the leader for the Democratic presidential nomination. “Before a vote was cast, and even though polls showed that more than half of all rank-and-file Democrats did not even know who he was, Clinton was hailed on the covers of Time, The New Republic, and New York magazine.

Most of us know that sad example of agenda–theory happened in 1930’s when one radio station was translating “The War of the Worlds” by G. Wells. Some people really thought that the beasts from Mars invaded the Earth. One lady even committed a suicide. From this example you can see how easy some people are influenced by mass media.

So who are the people most affected by the media agenda? Now some scientists concluded that they are the people who have a willingness to let the media shape their thinking have a high need for orientation. Others refer to it as an index of curiosity. Need for orientation arises from high relevance and uncertainty. Because I am a dog and cat owner, any story about cruelty to animals always catches my attention (high uncertainty). According to McCombs and Shaw, this combination would make me a likely cnadidate to be influenced by media stories about vivisection. If the news editors of Time and ABC thisnk it is important, I probably will too.

Agenda – setting theory has strong and weak points, as every other theory. It is pretty simple and it works usually in advertisements. When you see the commercial, you hear the information about certain product. But this information not necessarily can be true. You just absorb the story it tells in order to buy the product advertised. Thus the theory usually affects weak people and those who cannot decide what to think by themselves. The theory is not working for everyone. Some people just think what they think and do not pay attention to anything they are told. Only people who want to be influenced by somebody or something can actually be influenced.

McCombs and Shaw have established a plausible case that some people look to print and broadcast news for guidance on which issues are really important. Agenda-setting theory also provides a needed reminder that news stories are just that – stories. The message always requires interpretation. For these reasons, McCombs and Shaw have accomplished the function they ascribe to media. Agenda-setting theory has a priority place on the mass communication agenda.