Agenda Setting Theory

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Agenda Setting Theory

The agenda-setting theory, first introduced by Walter Lippmann and later adapted by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, discusses the mass media and it’s ability to influence what the public thinks and worries about. It focuses on the power and effects of media itself by explaining why people with similar media exposure place importance on the same issues. While they may feel differently about the issue at hand, they place equal significance on that issue. The theory suggests that the media is extremely successful in telling us what to think about, and not necessarily how to think. They act as a mediator between the outside world and the pictures in our head because they enable us to see beyond our immediate surroundings. This process takes place through gatekeepers. On top of the theory’s assumption that media concentration on issues leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than others, it also assumes media does not reflect our reality, but filter and shape it through framing. This scientific theory helps to emphasize the immense effect and power communication can have in shaping our lives. The agenda setting theory can be related to countless other suggested communication theories and helps to develop a new understanding of people.

Maxwell and Shaw first began their exploration into agenda setting by looking at politics, specifically the 1968 Nixon vs. Humphrey presidential race. They measured the media agenda of five political issues and compared it to that of the public agenda. The media agenda is the pattern of news coverage across major print and broadcast media as measured by the prominence and length of stories (Griffin, 379.) The media attempts to reflect their agenda on the public agenda. The resulting ranked list of issues was almost identical to the public agenda, which was measured by public opinion surveys. Therefore, this study proved the hypothesis correct. There was in fact a strong relationship between the salience of a story and the extent to which people think that story is important.

Because this theory makes a clear hypothesis, whether or not people exposed to the same media place importance on the same issues, it is a scientific theory. It has predictive power that scientific theories must entail, and has the ability to be proven false. Testing the audience’s response to the hypothesis is crucial in each study done in order to explain as well as predict. Does the frequency and prominence of news coverage in fact change how important an audience member regards that particular issue to be? Common research methods include public opinion polls. The correlation of rankings between public and media agendas is then calculated, resulting in quantitative evidence.

An important term to consider when discussing the agenda setting theory is “gatekeepers.” Gatekeepers are the persons who mediate what is said and who decides what the viewers should feel is important. In the case of agenda setting, they would consist of operational chiefs of news outlets like NBC, CBS, the New York Times and Fox. Some researchers also argue that office holders and public relations professionals decide what type of news is prominent.

It has also been argued that the agenda setting influence of the news media is not limited to focusing public attention. It can also influence out next step, understanding and perceiving the news topic at hand. Through media’s use of framing, our picture of a particular object can be shaped. “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 (Severin, 52.) The analysis of objects is described as a second level of the agenda setting theory. The media has the ability to stress some attributes of a news topic, and disregard others. The...
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