Does agenda setting theory still apply to social media?

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This is a learning module for the class Contemporary Social / Mass Media Theory taught at Purdue University by Sorin Adam Matei

Agenda setting theory was proposed in the early 1970s by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw to correct the popular perception that media effects are immediate reflections of media consumption. More exposure was thought to lead to greater effects. Little attention was paid to the mechanisms by which exposure was achieved in the first place. Agenda setting theory proposes the premise that exposure is not enough; media content needs to be made salient (significant) to the user before being processed and accepted.

Agenda setting changed the attention from what to “how” media effects work at institutional and macro-social level. Although, individual autonomy is important, like uses and gratifications theory suggests, we often pick and choose what issues to explore and evaluate from the pool of “important” issues determined by the media. Of these, the more salient are more likely to be processed and accepted as important. Specifically, people find most important those issues covered by the media most often. The more media coverage a topic receives, the more salient it becomes, and the more audience attention is funnelled toward it.

Agenda setting has evolved over time from a “issue salience” theory to a more complex proposition with overlaps with priming/framing theory. In the later elaborations, agenda setting emerged as multifaceted explanatory mechanism, which takes into account the representation and content of the media coverage as well as the corresponding audience attitudes about these issues.

What, how, to what effect: the first conceptualization of media effects

During the 1968 presidential campaign, scholars McCombs and Shaw set out to investigate the relationship between mass media and the public’s perceptions of “important” voting issues. Hypothesizing an “agenda-setting function of the mass media,” McCombs and Shaw attempted to match individuals’ perceptions of key voting issues to those issues given the most media attention. Throughout a three week period, they collected and analyzed the content of all the primary news sources in their target area of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They divided all the topics addressed into “major” and “minor” categories, determining topic significance by the amount of media coverage. During this same period, the researchers also interviewed 100 registered voters (who had not committed to a particular candidate), asking them to identify what they believed to be the key campaign issues.

After analyzing the data, McCombs and Shaw discovered a very strong relationship between the voters’ perceptions of salient issues and those issues discussed most by the media. Their findings also illustrated that voters’ beliefs of key issues reflected the composite of the media coverage– that is, the issues important to all the media, regardless of partisanship. These results not only supported the agenda setting hypothesis, but greatly problematized the popular theory of “selective perception,” or the belief that voters only absorb information that reinforces their ideology.

Thus, in their 1972 publication, McCombs and Shaw suggest that media “sets the agenda” for public perceptions of salient issues, funneling audience attention toward certain topics and thereby influencing public perceptions of important issues. Such a landmark study radically destabilized beliefs in the “indoctrinating effects” of the media, suggesting that the media does not tell the audience what to think, but rather what to think about. Such an emphasis on the institutional agenda of mass media began to shift attention away from media effects on individuals and refocus it on the organizational and societal effects at large.

Agenda setting today

After McCombs and Shaw’s seminal study, mass media scholars continued to refine and expand the theory. They began asking new questions and creating sophisticated models that examine more closely the representation of issues in the media and their effects on audience attitudes.

For example, Kiousis and McCombs (2004) stretched agenda-setting into an analysis of media effects on audience attitudes. In a study of the 1996 presidential election, they examined specifically how media attention toward certain topics strengthens audience attitudes concerning these issues. The results indicate a correlation between the amount of media coverage and the strength of audience attitudes, finding that any extra attention funneled toward an issue “stimulates stronger attitudes” toward that topic (2004).

Weaver (2007) also expanded the theory, pushing beyond analyzing the “amount” of media coverage and began studying the representation and content of the coverage itself. Thus, he suggests that agenda setting has two levels of effect; the first is the “relative salience” of a topic, and the second is the relative salience of the attributes of the issue. Thus, Weaver and other scholars train attention on the content and “framing” of issues and its influence on the attitudes of the audience–  not just their perception of important issues.

Agenda setting in a social media context

Unlike the late ‘60’s, the modern media landscape is now populated by bloggers, citizen journalists, Facebook and Twitter users as well as traditional media giants. Today, anyone can become a node in the media production process. Does this change the nature of agenda setting? According to the traditional theory, mass media influences the public’s priorities by funneling attention to their topics. However, with the advent of Web 2.0 and social media, does traditional media still maintain the power to “set the agenda” for the public—or has the balance of power shifted?

Multiple scholars have explored this question of power redistribution, examining the influence of blogs in the media cycle or the dissolving of traditional media “gatekeepers” (Meraz, 2009; Williams and Deli Carpini, 2004). As some bloggers have far larger platforms than many local media sources, and as print media continues to decline, it may appear that social media is an egalitarian breakthrough, a platform for which the common people can determine issues of importance for public conversation. Yet many power players in traditional media continue to fight for market share, adopting more flexible business models, adapting to the changing media landscape, even leveraging some aspects of social media. According to Messner and Distaso’s (2008), traditional media regularly cite blogs as source material– and blogs largely rely on traditional media for information as well. Clearly mass media and social media influence each other, even benefit each other. Therefore, can these changes in the media industry be considered a power struggle– or is it a healthy evolution in the mass media ecosystem?

The second set of articles explores these issues of power, fragmentation, and the cross-fertilizing effects of social media and traditional media.

Agenda setting as a theory

The strength of agenda setting lies in its power to offer a compelling explanation of issues important to society and to predict the issues salient to those with similar media exposure. Though designed during a dramatically different media era, agenda setting is still used today. Many continue to find value in the theoretical framework, adapting it or expanding it to examine the complex new media landscape.

However, critics of agenda setting theory often cite limitations in scope or unclear operationalizations as its primary weaknesses. In particular, they note its vague conceptualization of “setting the issues,” claiming the broad operational definitions undermine the validity of this purported media effect. Furthermore, agenda setting studies need to work harder to show a robust and time tested causal relationship.

Classical Agenda Setting Readings

Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, The agenda-setting role of mass media, Public Opinion Quarterly 36:176-187 (1972) – Main idea: alignment with media coverage of general news (versus news about own party) suggests agenda alignment, not self-selection.

McCombs (2014). Setting the Agenda. Polity Press. Especially chapters 4, 5 and 6.

Kiousis, S. , McCombs, M. (2004). Agenda Setting Study: Agenda Setting effects and strength, Comm. Research.

McCombs, M.E., and D.L. Shaw. (1993). The Evolution of Agenda-Setting Research: Twenty-Five Years in the Marketplace of Ideas. Journal of Communication. Vol. 43, No. 2 , p. 58 – 67

Weaver, D.H. (2007, Feb.) Thoughts on Agenda Setting, Framing, and Priming. Journal of Communication. Vol. 57 No. 1, p. 142 – 147

McCombs, M. (2014). Setting the Agenda: Mass Media and Public Opinion (2 edition.). Polity.  (Chapters 4 and 5)

Social Media Application of Agenda Setting Research

How traditional media and weblogs use each other as sources
Authors: Marcus Messner; Marcia Watson Distaso
DOI: 10.1080/14616700801999287
Published in: journal Journalism Studies, Volume 9, Issue 3 June 2008 , pages 447 – 463.   LINK …

Have things changed in the social media era. This article, also scoped by Media Convergence,  discusses how the news cycle has been changed by the advent of social media.

“Research has established that sources have the power to influence the news agenda of the media and that media can under certain circumstances act as sources for each other. This study examined the use of weblogs as sources in the traditional media and the use of sources in weblogs in general. A content analysis of 2059 articles over a six-year period from the New York Times and the Washington Post found that the newspapers increasingly legitimized weblogs as credible sources. (30-40% of articles studied cited a blog as a source). A separate content analysis of 120 weblogs found that they heavily relied on the traditional media as sources (70% of political posts sourced mainstream media). By allowing each other to influence their news agendas, there is indication that the traditional media and weblogs create what the researchers introduce and define as a news source cycle, in which news content can be passed back and forth from media to media.”

Williams, B.A. and Deli Carpini, M.X. (2004).
Monica and Bill all the time and everywhere: The collapse of gatekeeping and agenda setting in the new media environment. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(9), 1208–1230.

This article argues that by providing virtually unlimited sources of political information, the new media environment undermines the idea that there are discrete gates through which political information passes: If there are no gates, there can be no gatekeepers. The difficulty of elites (political and media both) and academics in understanding the Lewinsky scandal stems from their failure to recognize the increasingly limited ability of journalists to act as gatekeepers. The disjuncture between elite attempts to both control and understand the scandal on one hand and the conclusions the public drew about this political spectacle on other hand speaks to some fundamental changes that have occurred in the role of the press in American society in the late 20th century.

Is There an Elite Hold? Traditional Media to Social Media Agenda Setting Influence in Blog Networks
Sharon Meraz, Volume 14 Issue 3, Pages 682 – 707.

This study’s findings highlight that traditional media’s agenda setting power is no longer universal or singular within citizen media outlets: The independent blog platform is redistributing power between traditional media and citizen media. Traditional media agenda setting is now just one force among many competing influences. Unlike traditional media platforms, independent blog networks are utilizing the blog tool to allow citizens more influence and power in setting news agendas. Across all blog networks, there were insignificant differences in traditional-to-citizen media links across all three issue periods combined (t(34) = ?1.49, p > .05). In two of the three networks (right leaning network and moderate network), this finding was supported on an issue-by-issue basis.

The 29 blogs examined in this study yielded 3721 unique links and 646 unique domains ( is a domain in contrast to, which counts as a link). The top 20% of the unique 646 URL domains in this study command 2890 of the 3721 links, or 78% of attention across all networks. This network’s close adherence to the 80/20 Pareto power law suggests that a few elite actors are in control of the majority of source influence throughout the entire network of traditional media and citizen media blog links.

Is there a preference among all citizen blog networks for either traditional or citizen media? Table 4 provides the means and standard deviations for the three networks in their links to citizen media versus traditional media across all three issues. Table 5 reveals the results of an independent samples t-test, which revealed no significant differences (t(34) = ?1.49, p > .05) in links to citizen media (M = 58.61, SD = 52.72) or traditional media (M = 92.5, SD = 80.8) across all three issues in the three ideological blog networks.

Scheufele, D and Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models. Journal of Communication. Vol. 57 (2007) p. 9–20.


James Beniger, Media Content as Social Indicators, The Greenfield Index of Agenda-Setting, doi: 10.1177/009365027800500404, Communication Research October 1978 vol. 5 no. 4 437-453

Sorin Adam Matei

Sorin Adam Matei - Professor of Communication at Purdue University - studies the relationship between information technology and social integration. He published papers and articles in Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Information Society, and Foreign Policy. He is the author or co-editor of several books. The most recent is Ethical Reasoning in Big Data. He also co-edited Transparency in social media and Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets: Theory and Methods (Computational Social Sciences) , both the product of the NSF funded KredibleNet project. Dr. Matei's teaching portfolio includes online interaction, and online community analytics and development classes. His teaching makes use of a number of software platforms he has codeveloped, such as Visible Effort . Dr. Matei is also known for his media work. He is a former BBC World Service journalist whose contributions have been published in Esquire and several leading Romanian newspapers. In Romania, he is known for his books Boierii Mintii (The Mind Boyars), Idolii forului (Idols of the forum), and Idei de schimb (Spare ideas).

27 thoughts on “Does agenda setting theory still apply to social media?

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  • September 15, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    I find the agenda-setting theory to be the most interesting of the mass media theories that we have studied. In many ways it seems like a reworking and weakening of the Hypodermic Needle idea. Instead of directly implanting opinions into the brains of media consumers, media constrains and nudges the possible ways in which they can view reality.

    I thought that McCombs and Shaw’s original article laid out important theoretical groundwork, but I found their actual study results wanting. They basically showed that there is a correlation between the topics that the media finds important and the issues that the public finds important, and claim that this shows that the media has set the agenda. They then claim that, “Any argument that the correlations between media and voter emphasis are spurious–that they are simply responding to the same events and not influencing each other one way or the other–assumes that voters have alternative means of observing the day-to-day changes in the political arena.” (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). I may be misunderstanding the argument, but this seems tautological – people are influenced by the media because the media is the only thing that can influence them. Fortunately, later studies employed methodology that teased out more meaningful relationships between media issue salience and public issue salience (McCombs and Shaw, 1993), and by the time I finished the “Classical” readings, I was convinced that the theory was on sound empirical footing.

    That being said, this seems to be the media effect that is being affected most by the new media environment. As Williams and Carpini (2004), and Meraz (2009) argue, the time period when traditional media could truly act as a gatekeeper for what we could see and think about was short. Cable television, and now the ability for anyone to publish on the web makes gatekeeping nearly impossible. In network theory terms, the national media used to act like a bridge between the public and political events, but now there are multiple edges that connect us, greatly reducing the power of old media. Instead of news stories happening and being filtered through media outlets, news creation is now much more bottom-up, with new media and old media co-creating the agenda (Meraz, 2009). In a sense, then, the media still sets the agenda – just not consciously, in back rooms in New York, but in a bottom-up network, where no individual actor has veto power.

    As a somewhat tangential addendum, David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know argues that not only the content of media, but also the attributes of media, can alter the way that we view the world (Weinberger, 2012). He says that the network structure of the Internet is causing us to rethink what knowledge is, how it is created, and where it comes from. On the Internet, a web page is not just the content that is there, but in a real sense it is composed of the pages that it links to, and the pages that link to it. Consuming Internet content in this interconnected way, Weinberger argues, is making us see knowledge and truth as a network of interconnected parts. I found his ideas to be an interesting application of some of the principles of agenda setting theory, and highly recommend his work.

    • September 17, 2012 at 8:24 pm

      The relationship between public and media agendas is demonstrated by more than mere tautology. There is a point where the article shows that the two agendas only meet under certain conditions. Which are those conditions?

  • September 17, 2012 at 9:45 am

    McCombs and Shaw (1993) noted, “Today two dozen newspaper racks are in front of the downtown post office, and an equal number of channels are available on cable television. The media system has fragmented.” In the almost 20 years since McCombs and Shaw published this statement, the media environment has only become more fragmented, and the creation of user-generated content (and user-moderated content) has made media’s agenda-setting function even more complicated. However, the readings demonstrate how agenda setting as a theory has evolved so that it can be applied to the social media available today.

    I know that this framing aspect of agenda-setting is in effect from my own experiences. Being out of the country, I only hear about what my friends and family have deemed important enough to tell me about, what I see on social media sites like Facebook, and articles found on more popular “news” webpages like Key in this example is that I have no way of knowing firsthand what is actually happening in the presidential race. All the information I have about the election or other news events is framed by the media. Without this exposure, I wouldn’t know what to look for or what was thought to be important—a key assumption of the agenda-setting theory. One big difference in my experience compared to the original McCombs and Shaw (1972) article is that I have more choices when picking where I get information from, but even then I am still limited by what I am able to find information about.

    Because of these experiences, how agenda setting has been applied today became very interesting to me. Messner and Watson DiStaso (2008) wrote about the cyclical influence of traditional media sources like newspapers and weblogs where they have been increasingly using each other as sources. I would think this cyclical influence applies to other social media like Facebook and Twitter. People tweeting about the story (or a story “trending”) draws attention to the story as something that is important and then that story can continue in the more traditional media sources (or vice versa). This attention cycle reminded me of Lazarsfeld and Merton’s (1948/2007) statement that “The audiences of mass media apparently subscribe to the circular belief: ‘If you really matter, you will be at the focus of mass attention and, if you are at the focus of mass attention, then surely you must really matter’” (p. 236).

    Here, it’s important to distinguish among two-step flow, uses and gratifications, and agenda setting because they can become convoluted. I get some of my news from other people (two-step flow), but I pick and choose this media influence to fulfill the need to be informed in order to better socialize with people in the US (uses and gratifications). Throughout all of this, the content and connotations of the information are framed by the media sources I am exposed to (agenda-setting).

    In thinking more deeply about this topic, Weaver’s (2007) discussion of the similarities and differences among framing, priming, and agenda setting became helpful. Weaver said, “I see these areas of communication research as interconnected and as involving some similar, although not identical, cognitive processes and effects” (p. 142). I believe the same thought holds with these three theories. They are interconnected in that they all attempt to explain and predict media effects; however, 1) two-step flow is more concerned with the pattern of information dissemination along with the resulting interpersonal conversation that surrounds it; 2) uses and gratifications is more concerned with the individual choices and psychological reasoning behind media exposure; and 3) agenda setting focuses on what media portrays, the content/tone of that message, and what influenced the selection of that message. One may see similarities in the theories’ theoretical concepts and processes, but they have slightly different purposes. The different purposes help make the theories applicable to the newer media technologies, and have kept the “older” media theories relevant today.

    Lazarsfeld, P., & Merton, R. K. (1948/2007). Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action. İletişim kuram ve araştırma dergisi, 24, 229-250.
    McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting role of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176-187
    McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1993). The evolution of agenda-setting research: Twenty-five years in the marketplace of ideas. Journal of Communication, 43, 58-67.
    Messner, M., & Watson DiStaso, M. (2008). The source cycle: How traditional media and weblogs use each other as sources. Journalism Studies, 9, 447-463.
    Weaver, D. H. (2007). Thoughts on agenda setting, framing, and priming. Journal of Communication, 57, 142-147.

    • September 17, 2012 at 8:23 pm

      Excellent idea to bring it all together by emphasizing that all three theories are part of the same ecosystem of ideas.

  • September 17, 2012 at 11:31 am

    The classic pieces on agenda setting struck me, at first glance, as outdated. McCombs and Shaw (1972), for example, found that “…for the Chapel Hill community almost all the mass media political information was provided by the following sources: Durham Morning Herald, Durham Sun, Raleigh News and Observer, Raleigh Times, New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and NBC and CBS evening news broadcasts.” Such a limited range of news sources might strike the contemporary observer as unfamiliar. But the mere fact that media consumption is different today than it was forty years ago is not sufficient to reject the notion of agenda setting. Rather, we should note that it follows intuitively that a world in which people consume news from a far more diverse range of sources is one in which the agenda setting hypothesis becomes much more difficult to maintain. The mere fact that this intuits well, however, is not sufficient to reject agenda setting either. We must consider whether or not (1) an eclectic media diet somehow interferes with the agenda setting process and (2) contemporary people actually consume a more diverse range of media. I find it interesting that the latter is often taken for granted – after all with lots of new media out there people must be expanding their boundaries beyond a few local papers, the nightly news, and a small handful of national publications. However, it occurs to me that the findings of the Messner and Distaso (2008) study directly contradict the notion that consumers today are getting a more eclectic diet than their predecessors. The study found that blogs relied heavily on traditional media as sources for their information and that traditional media sources were increasingly using blogs as sources for their content. This finding indicates that instead of diversifying the pool from which contemporary consumers drink, new media are complicit in furthering discussion of the topics reviewed in traditional media. This is not to malign new media as complicit in some sort of centralized attempt to set the agenda, quite the contrary the study indicates that blogs can have a significant effect on what traditional media sources talk about. But it should be clear that if traditional media and new media are using each other as sources and as catalysts for discussion we should be careful in maintaining the position that there is something more diverse about the contemporary media landscape than its predecessors. This is especially true if our focus is on what people think about and not necessarily what they think. Thus, if we return to our original questions we are left to wonder whether or not the proliferation of sources from which people can consume media actually affects the agenda setting process as well as whether or not the mere quantitative increase in sources actually diversifies media consumption. These are exactly the kind of questions Meraz (2009) takes on in her analysis of the traditional media’s ability to set the agenda within the realm of social media. I agree with her finding that, “…traditional media’s agenda setting power is no longer universal or singular within citizen media outlets: The independent blog platform is redistributing power between traditional media and citizen media.” However, before we throw out agenda setting entirely, I would ask whether or not the rise of “citizen media” actually changes the agenda setting process for the kinds of voters we observe in the classic agenda setting pieces. It is important to remember that McCombs, Shaw, and the rest of their cohort did not set out to observe whether or not the media set the agenda for activists, but rather whether or not they set the agenda for regular, even in some cases specifically undecided, voters. It may be that one man alone wields significantly more power to steer the national discussion than ever before as the result of new media, but it seems as though the mutual influence and constant discourse between traditional and new media would indicate that there are still forces larger than the average person off the street setting the agenda for what that person talks and thinks about.

    Works Cited

    Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, The agenda-setting role of mass media, Public Opinion Quarterly Vol. 36. 1972. pg. 176-187.

    Meraz, Sharon. Is There an Elite Hold? Traditional Media to Social Media Agenda Setting Influence in Blog Networks. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication. Volume 14 Issue 3. 2009. pg. 682 – 707.

    Messner, Marcus and Marcia Watson Distaso. How traditional media and weblogs use each other as sources. Journalism Studies. 9:3 June 2008. pg. 447 – 463.

    • September 20, 2012 at 10:30 am

      Excellent point about the apparent increase in media diet diversity. Speaking about Meraz’s conclusions, though, I wonder if you were not surprised that the noticeable differences in bloggers’ reliance on traditional vs. new media were not significant. Why do you think this was so?

  • September 17, 2012 at 9:19 pm

    Instead of emphasizing the importance of distinguishing among two-step flow, uses and gratifications and agenda setting, I would rather draw them in one picture and see how they be assembled together to present a total view of communication theory.

    The uses and gratifications theory, stated in research of Katz, Blumler and Gurevitch, “represents an attempt to explain something of the way in which individuals use communications, among other resources in their environment, to satisfy their needs and to achieve their goals.” So the initiative part of this theory is the human, and the theory is about what and why human establish a relationship with the media. On the other hand, two-step flow and agenda setting represent a totally opposite way of approach that it aims to find out how media influence people. In this case, the media is the active part and the human behaviors are not evaluated as what to do but what to response. By studying these three theories, we build up a two-way exchanging diagram that not only including how and why people seeking information from media, but also how media feeding back.

    What’s more, in the aspect of how media influence people, two-steps flow and agenda setting theory also plays their own role. According to Cohen’s words, the agenda setting theory is “telling its reader what to think about” and, by McCombs and Shaw, it also tells “how to think about it.” So if the human-media system itself is a big game, it is the media that generate the basis of this game by providing resources players can achieve and standard of playing. The two-steps flow theory presents the idea of the People’s Choice, and as Jenna mentioned, it describes “the pattern of information dissemination along with the resulting interpersonal conversation that surrounds it.” So it is more likely to present how the game really be played. By combining the agenda setting theory to two-steps theory, the effect of media has been increased. Though all the choices are still made by the people, the media has added a boundary and criterion on it.


    Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, the agenda-setting role of mass media, Public Opinion Quarterly 36:176-187(1972)

    Kiousis, S., McCombs, M. (2003, March). Agenda Setting Study: Agenda Setting effects and strength, MT Journal Nr. P. 142

    McCombs, M.E., and D.L. Shaw. (1993) The evolution of agenda-setting research: twenty-five years in the marketplace of idea. Journal of communication. Vol 43, No.2, p. 58-67.

    USES AND GRATIFICATIONS RESEARCH, Katz, Elihu, Blumler, Jay G., Gurevitch, Michael, Public Opinion Quarterly; Winter73-Winter74, Vol. 37 Issue 4, p509, 15p

    Elihu Katz, The two-step flow of communication: An up-to-date report on an hypothesis, Public Opinion Quarterly [0033-362X] Katz yr:1957 vol:21 iss:1 pg:61

    • September 20, 2012 at 10:22 am

      Excellent attempt to bring together a variety of perspectives… I found the comment that media are not direct influencers, but resources quite intriguing….

  • September 24, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    My post is a bit of a preview of some ideas I will expand upon in my short paper –
    When thinking about how to tie early mass communication literature to today’s modern, social media-centered mass communication literature in a useful way, I believe it is important to think quite a bit about directionality. What I mean by directionality are the various directions in which media messages and media effects are moving between message senders and message receivers, in line with some basic theoretical constructs we have discussed. For example, two-step flow theory tells us that ideas flow from mass media to opinion leaders and from opinion leaders to the rest of the population (Katz, 1957). On the surface, this seems reasonable. However, as we discussed in class, modern media can turn this theory on its head a bit when you consider something like blogs. A blog entry can turn the “rest of the population” into the opinion leaders if the blog becomes very popular or “goes viral.” In addition to this, the same bloggers who become opinion leaders via the success of their popular blogs can also be picked up by mass media outlets and used as sources of information for mass media messages. In this sense, two-step flow theory may still be applicable – the “rest of the population” receives mediated messages – but the direction itself has changed from that of starting with mass media, then going to opinion leaders, then to the population, to starting with the population, then going to opinion leaders, then to mass media, and back. The flow of mediated information continues, but with different directionality. These same principles of directionality can be examined while looking through the lenses of uses and gratifications theory as well as agenda-setting theory, but that’s material for my short paper.

    I think the key conclusion to be drawn when evaluating the applicability of traditional media theories to today’s media environment is that we are not so limited by the media theories themselves, but by the ways in which we apply them to the context of social media. Instead of thinking of each theoretical process in a linear fashion, it may be more effective to think of each process in a more cyclical, self-feeding way – at the same time, media uses and effects can still be clearly identified and connected theoretically (as Jenna and Di discussed). There is no doubt that the nature of social media leads the consumer to take on multiple roles in the process of transmitting media messages – creator, consumer, evaluator, disseminator. If we are willing to accept these shifting roles and acknowledge the possibility that one media consumer may, for example, seek information from an opinion leader in one instance and then in the very next instance identify as the opinion leader themselves, we can effectively make use of “traditional” media theories to understand the uses and effects of social media, or contemporary mass media.


    Katz, E. (1957). The two-step flow of communication: An up-to-date report on an hypothesis. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 21, 61-78.

    Class Discussion: Thursday, September 20.

  • September 20, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    In the present-day social media paradigm, are news media better seen as influencers or resources? Several themes emerge from our readings to guide this discussion.
    McCombs and Shaw (1972) found early on that public discourse tended to align with media coverage rather than simply self-selecting toward news regarding their own party. Their study was prompted by the realization that in this new mass-mediated world people meet their political candidates through mass media rather than in person. They specifically noted, “Yet the evidence in this study that voters tend to share the media’s composite definition of what is important strongly suggests an agenda setting function of the mass media (p. 184)”.
    Kiousis and McCombs (2004) further this discussion by widening our gaze on media effects of agenda-setting by encouraging researchers to notice not just opinion shift, but opinion strength. In doing so, the effects of media agenda-setting become more widespread and profound. Echoing this point, McCombs and Estrada (1997) reformulate Cohen’s maxim regarding media power as “the media may not only tell us what to think about, they may also tell us how and what to think about it, and even what to do about it.” In short, the more that mass media sources focus on certain issues, the more they become salient to public discourse.
    This notion brings us to the second level of agenda-setting, framing. The media may not control our minds (as is the notion of the Hypodermic Needle Theory), but they can guide our discussions (which nudges us toward Two-Step Flow). McCombs notes that this ironically brings agenda-setting discussions back to where mass media research of the 40’s and 50’s regarding limited effects.
    This notion of framing is explored more and defined more explicitly by Weaver (2007).
    Weaver quotes several researchers on the subject, but I found two to be rather helpful. The first is Tankard, Hendrickson, Silberman, Bliss, and Ghanem (1991) who define a 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.” The second, and perhaps even more intriguing, is Entman (1993) who notes that ‘‘to frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.” In light of this, media span the boundary between agenda-setters and resources.
    Furthering this discussion of influencer versus resource, Messner and Distaso (2008) examine how media outlets are affecting blogs, and they introduce the term ‘intermedia agenda-setting’. For me, this concept hearkened back even more to Two Step Flow, as well as laid the ground for contemporary discussions on the concept of the ‘echo chamber’ effect of social media, wherein ideas show up in many discussions but mostly because people involved are quoting each other. This view seems to suggest that media are both.
    At this point in my reading, I began to wonder when the counter to agenda-setting discussions through an infusion of a Uses and Gratifications perspective would emerge. My feeling was confirmed in the cultural critique by Williams and Carpini (2004), who posited that in a world of no gates, there is no place for gatekeeping discussions anymore. In a world of fractured media, the public is left to wade through the voices and seek information that they want to hear. This is a clear shift toward resource.
    Finally, Meraz (2009) offers the ‘old’ principle of homophily theory by Lazarsfeld and Merton (1954). Birds of a feather flock together. Meraz ends the article by writing, “Declining newspaper circulation rates, eroding network television audiences, and declining credibility of traditional media news outlets among Web users all suggest that traditional media is in desperate need of reinvention.” Meraz’s piece does not finalize an answer, but certainly highlights the tension in the discussion.
    In this course, we are required to consistently ask the questions, “Does agenda setting theory still apply to social media? My answer is yes. I think in this new paradigm that media functions both as influencers and resources. I also think the theories we’ve discussed so far in class respond in concert nicely. While the magic bullet of the Hypodermic Needle Theory may not hold true, agenda-setting and Two Step and Uses and Gratifications all form a mosaic of thought, guiding us closer to understanding.
    (p.s. Sorry this was a bit long … I got a bit carried away while I was thinking on the subject.)

    Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of
    Communication, 43(4), 51–58.

    Kiousis, S. & McCombs, M. (2004). Agenda Setting Study: Agenda Setting effects and strength, Comm. Research.

    McCombs, M., & Estrada, G. (1997). The news media and the pictures in our heads. In S. Iyengar&R. Reeves (Eds.),Do the media govern? (pp. 237-247). London: Sage.

    McCombs, M. & Shaw, D. (1972) The agenda-setting role of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36:1, 76-187.

    Messner, M., & Distaso, M. (2008). How traditional media and weblogs use each other as sources. Journalism Studies, 9:3, 447–463.

    Meraz, S. (2009) Is There an Elite Hold? Traditional Media to Social Media Agenda Setting Influence in Blog Networks. JCMC, 14:3, 682–707.

    Tankard, J., Hendrickson, L., Silberman, J., Bliss, K., & Ghanem, S. (1991). Media frames: Approaches to conceptualization and measurement. Paper presented at the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Boston, MA.

    Weaver, D.H. (2007, Feb.) Thoughts on Agenda Setting, Framing, and Priming. Journal of Communication. Vol. 57 No. 1, p. 142 – 147

    Williams, B.A. and Deli Carpini, M.X. (2004). Monica and Bill all the time and everywhere: The collapse of gatekeeping and agenda setting in the new media environment. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(9), 1208–1230.

  • September 21, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    While Agenda Setting Theory constitutes my favorite old media theory, perhaps it is better named “Agendas Setting Theory” in the age of social media. However, before discussing the quantitative nature of the theory, agenda must be defined and conceptualized. Cohen’s (1963) well-known claim that the media “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” has served as one of the foundations of the theory, conceptualizing agenda as the issues that are most thought about. McCombs and Shaw’s (1972) key study followed this line of thought, conceptualizing and operationalizing agenda as the issues that are most salient. Kiousis and McCombs (2004) critiqued the idea of agenda by claiming that it consists not only of the “objects” in the news but also of the attributes of the “objects.”
    Based on Dr. Charles Berger’s Planning Theory of Communication, I claim that an agenda consists not only of issues but also of social goals. Berger’s (1997) planning theory assumes that all communication is goal-directed, where goals are “cognitive representations of desired end states for which people strive” (Berger & Palomares, 2011). Communicators achieve goals through knowledge structures, which consist of cognitive plans and scripts. Indeed, all communicators have agendas that influence their communication. From a mass media perspective, all media have not only issues and plans that they emphasize but also goals that they are seeking to accomplish. The increased attention given to certain news objects and their attributes evidences the goals that media are seeking to achieve. Furthermore, to understand the contemporary number of media agendas, we need to examine not only the issues and attributes but also the goals of the media.
    When McCombs and Shaw originally crafted the theory, they conceptualized one media agenda, with one consisting goal. In the foundational test of the theory, McCombs and Shaw (1972) operationalized the media through four channels of communication: television, newspapers, news magazines, and editorial page coverages. While their correlation matrix evidenced different characteristics of each channel, they assumed that these channels present one overarching agenda of the mass media. Indeed, McCombs and Shaw (1972) claimed, “The media are the major primary sources of national political information” (p. 185). To McCombs and Shaw, the media has one goal, as opposed to many. While different media outlets may have differed in the extent to which they achieve this goal, they were consistent in their cognitive planning of issue saliency.
    Social media has changed the nature of media agendas. As Jenna observed in an earlier post, “In the almost 20 years since McCombs and Shaw published this statement, the media environment has only become more fragmented, and the creation of user-generated content (and user-moderated content) has made media’s agenda-setting function even more complicated.” Indeed, as Meraz (2009) showed, the media no longer has one goal. Bloggers and other internet users are changing not only what issues are discussed but also how they are discussed. For example, during a presidential campaign, the internet evidences a multiplicity of goals. The American Family Association will focus on social issues, pushing the goals of the conservative social agenda, while the NRA will focus on many different issues and especially different attributes, pushing for the goal of upholding the second amendment. Gone are the days of one media goal. Rather, we live in a world of multiple media goals and multiple media agendas.
    So perhaps “Agenda Setting Theory” would be better coined “Agendas Setting Theory” as social media has introduced multiple news sources, multiple communicative goals, and multiple agendas that focus on multiple news objects and multiple attributes of those objects. Berger’s planning theory not only adds clarity to the nature of media agendas but also provides insight into how agendas function in the age of social media. But perhaps this is just my agenda…
    Berger, C. R. (1997). Planning strategic interaction: Attaining goals through communicative action. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
    Berger, C. R., & Palomares, N. A. (2011). Knowledge structures and social interaction. The SAGE handbook of interpersonal communication, 169-200.
    Cohen, B (1963). The press and foreign policy. New York: Harcourt.
    Kiousis, S., & McCombs, M. (2004). Agenda setting study: Agenda setting effects and strength. Communication Research, 31, 36-57. doi: 10.1177/0093650203260205
    Meraz, S. (2009), Is There an Elite Hold? Traditional Media to Social Media Agenda Setting Influence in Blog Networks. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14: 682–707. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2009.01458.x
    McCombs, M., & Shaw, D. (1972). The agenda-setting function of the mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176-187.

    • September 22, 2014 at 6:01 pm

      Ditto… Nice touch adding references to Berger and to Jenna’s comments…

  • September 22, 2014 at 12:55 am

    Based upon this week’s reading in conjunction with the theories we have reviewed to this point I believe Agenda Setting Theory (AST) certainly applies to Social Media. In fact, I think AST will have some very interesting implications in a rapidly evolving online community where Agenda Setters are competing to operate any of a “myriad of gates” (Williams, Carpini, 2004). According to McCombs & Shaw (1993), the media fosters a sense of community by setting a certain agenda. Meraz compliments this sentiment with his discussion of Social Network Analysis as a tool for explaining the “potential power of agenda setters within specified social networks” (2009). Additionally, in their discussion of media becoming the place we live rather than just a bridge between us and how we live, in conjunction with their references to a neo-libertarian perspective, Williams & Carpini imply the shifts to new media allow the public to once again take an active role in creating their reality (2004). As I mentioned, in the U&G discussion, I believe that our use of Social Media is an effort to regain control and part of that control would be a more active role in agenda setting not just in the psychological sense (need for orientation), but also within whatever we define as our community (Meraz, 2007). According to Messner & Distaso the agenda setter’s choice of sources is a major component of the media construction of reality (2008). In accordance with this train of thought, social media may be that community and reality in which users become the agenda setters. The discussion of the traditional media relying on victims of hurricane Andrew for testimony back in the 90s, as opposed to policy directors, in order to make the public focus on the government as inadequate, serves as a nice precursor to an overall shift toward the user/public regaining ground in the hierarchy of effects. The Clinton/Monica scandal poll results finding the public could easily determine the relevance of the scandal to be entertainment oriented also indicates a public ready to control more of the agenda (Williams, Carpini, 2004). More recently, I found the Edward Snowden leaks indicative of a massively fractured media, with many perspectives being tweeted and otherwise expressed by a global public. The media was once again trying to find an appropriate position. In the future, that situation could make for a unique, global and updated analysis similar to the Clinton/Lewinsky article.
    To borrow a phrase from Meraz, I think that traditional media is still hijacking opportunities from the public to become gatekeeper and agenda setter. In Social Media, the algorithm system underscores this concept, by limiting the menu of topics and viewpoints for public discourse. However, since Facebook is not yet aware of my blackbox needs, some novel political and social information emerges from connections with people which are not based in shared values. I can then choose whether to disseminate this novel information. To me Intermedia Agenda Setting and Two-Step-Flow may even merge in this way.
    I find the neo-libertarian ideas exciting, but honestly still comply with traditional media agenda setting techniques by checking blogosphere information and viral Facebook stories against traditional media sources. I also subscribe to mostly traditional media news outlets that simply choose to use Social Media as a platform. Overtime, perhaps I will adapt to this new way of living within and trusting my online community.


    McCombs, M. & Shaw, D. (1972) The agenda-setting role of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36:1, 76-187.
    McCombs, M.E., and D.L. Shaw. (1993). The Evolution of Agenda-Setting Research: Twenty-Five Years in the Marketplace of Ideas. Journal of Communication. Vol. 43, No. 2 , p. 58 – 67
    Messner, M., & Distaso, M. (2008). How traditional media and weblogs use each other as sources. Journalism Studies, 9:3, 447–463.
    Meraz, S. (2009) Is There an Elite Hold? Traditional Media to Social Media Agenda Setting Influence in Blog Networks. JCMC, 14:3, 682–707.
    Weaver, D.H. (2007, Feb.) Thoughts on Agenda Setting, Framing, and Priming. Journal of Communication. Vol. 57 No. 1, p. 142 – 147
    Williams, B.A. and Deli Carpini, M.X. (2004). Monica and Bill all the time and everywhere: The collapse of gatekeeping and agenda setting in the new media environment. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(9), 1208–1230.

  • September 22, 2014 at 11:16 am

    I do believe that the agenda setting theory still applies to social media, but slightly differently from McCombs original intentions (McCombs & Reynolds, 2002). Agenda setting originally spoke of the influence of media such as television and newspapers on the salience of topics. McCombs came up with this theory during a period when internet and social media were not available so people relied on television, newspapers, and magazines for information (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). Thus, according to the authors, it was originally mainly the news media that was able to prime opinions about politics and other big issues in the world (McCombs & Kiousis, 2004).

    However, I believe that even during that time period, friends and family also influenced consumer’s opinions. While they gain much of the information and details from news sources, many go on to discuss the issues with peers around the water-cooler at work, as well as, family and. This is similar to social media use today, where citizens discuss relevant political (or other topics of interest) with other individuals online. It is very possible that these discussions, may it be online or in person, have an impact on an individual’s opinion and opinion formation, whether it strengthens their current viewpoint or alters it friends (much like the 2-step flow we learned the previous week). As such, while media does not have a direct agenda setting influence, they can indirectly influence opinions by encouraging discussion among individuals on relevant political topics which may involve spreading opinions originally gathered from traditional media.

    This is also relevant in online social media since research suggest that much of bloggers, thus possibly other social media participant’s, political information may be gathered from traditional media (Messner & DiStaso, 2008) (Meraz, 2009). Additionally, much of discussion could occur in the message boards and comments sections of news media such as New York Times, Yahoo News, etc. The commenters will read the information in the news and discuss these issues, viewpoints etc. with the other commenters possibly to influence other members of society. In a sense, social media takes journalists’ power to direct attention to/away from certain attributes and distributes this ability to all the participants in social media discussion (McCombs & L., The Evolution of Agenda-Setting, 1993). Hence, media agenda setting is still occurring but now readers are also involved in the agenda setting process.


    McCombs, M. E., & L., D. (1993). The Evolution of Agenda-Setting. Journal of Communication, 43(2).
    McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 36(2), 176-187.
    McCombs, M., & Kiousis, S. (2004). Agenda-Setting Effects and. COMMUNICATION RESEARCH, 31(1), 36-57.
    McCombs, M., & Reynolds, A. (2002). News influence on our pictures of the world. Media Effects: Advances in theory and research.
    Meraz, S. (2009). Is There an Elite Hold? Traditional Media to Social Media Agenda Setting Influence in Blog Networks. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14, 682-707.
    Messner, M., & DiStaso, M. W. (2008). How traditional media and weblogs use each. Journalism Studies, 9(3).

    • September 22, 2014 at 5:57 pm

      So, you are saying that in fact agenda setting should’ve more openly acknowledged two step flow at its original formulation. Does agenda setting completely ignore the possibility of interpersonal interactions? What does the 1993 and 2004 articles have to say about this?

  • September 22, 2014 at 11:23 am

    As Kiousis and McCombs (2004) cite in their opening sentence, early and subsequent agenda-setting studies have largely explored how mass media, policy makers and the general public work concertedly to choose which issues should be most important in our society.

    While the majority of our readings focused on examining the agenda setting theory in relation to political issues and figures, I believe the theory can be applied to most pop culture items (and therefore social media) today.

    For example, the popular show Fashion Police on the Entertainment (E!) channel hosted by the late Joan Rivers and her friends tried to set the standards of fashion and highlight those breaking the standards. As the show was broadcast on television, it could be considered a form of mass media; Joan and her fashion friends would be considered policy makers in this context; and they attempted to set fashion standards for celebrities and the public to follow. They also invited the public to participate via social media and regular polls on their website to choose who wore an outfit better. In essence, the show was trying to make specific fashions more salient to their publics.

    Is Fashion Police newsworthy? To me, no – it’s entertainment, based largely on the opinions and shock value of the hosts. Yet there are thousands of people who watch it and get their “news” about celebrities and fashion from the show. When longtime host Joan Rivers recently passed away, her death was national news.
    This is just one example that popped into my mind of Williams’ and Delli Carpini’s assertion that new media has blurred the line between news and entertainment. Many new social media outlets make money by further blurring this line, case in point: Buzzfeed ( Almost all of their “news” in a day is based on list-making and the perceived entertainment and enjoyment their readers will get out of a new “story” or list. But, they do in fact write and publish news stories. They’ve capitalized however, on the fact that most of their younger readers come to them for entertainment first, and then may happen upon a news story or one of their BuzzfeedReads.

    I would argue that gatekeeping has become a responsibility of the audience, the individual readers, to decide what is “news” and what is entertainment.

    McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public opinion quarterly, 36(2), 176-187.

    Williams, B. A., & Carpini, M. X. D. (2004). Monica and Bill All the Time and Everywhere The Collapse of Gatekeeping and Agenda Setting in the New Media Environment. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(9), 1208-1230.

    • September 22, 2014 at 5:52 pm

      I could not agree more with your opinion that agenda setting is a valid research strategy for more than political issues. But what made you think that the theory is to be limited to such topics, in the first place? Is the theory, as stated, restrictive in the sense that you suggest?

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