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
Social Media Application of Agenda Setting Research
How traditional media and weblogs use each other as sources
Authors: Marcus Messner; Marcia Watson Distaso
Published in: journal Journalism Studies, Volume 9, Issue 3 June 2008 , pages 447 – 463. LINK …
“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.
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 (cnn.com is a domain in contrast to http://www.cnn.com/page1.html, 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.
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