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Agenda-Setting Theory
Maxwell McCombs & Donald Shaw

MASS COMMUNICATION: MEDIA EFFECTS


  1. Most of us can’t pay equal attention to more than a dozen issues. Time and mental energy are scarce resources.
    1. The typical person can only focus on about five issues at any one time.
    2. The small set of issues that’s most important to you at the moment is your personal agenda.
    3. Taking the average of those concerns across an entire community, state, or nation is the public agenda—the set of issues most salient (in other words, that capture attention) across a group of people at a given time.
    4. The degree of importance that the news media assigns to issues at a given moment is the media agenda.
    5. The basic hypothesis of the theory is this: over time, the media agenda shapes the public agenda.
    6. McCombs, Shaw, and others have amassed decades of evidence that documents the power of the press to shape our reality.
    7. They've found that agenda-setting occurs in three ways, or levels.
  2. Level 1: The media tells us what to think about.
    1. McCombs wondered if, over time, the public agenda came to reflect the media agenda, such that “we judge as important what the media judge as important.”
    2. In opposition to then-current wisdom that mass communication had limited effects upon its audience, Theodore White came to the conclusion that the media shaped election campaigns
    3. Walter Lippmann claimed that the media act as a mediator between “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.”
    4. What set McCombs and Shaw apart is that they put these hunches to empirical test.
    5. McCombs and Shaw first tested their theory with undecided voters in Chapel Hill, NC.
      1. McCombs and Shaw’s first task was to measure the media agenda.
      2. They established position and length of story as the two main criteria of prominence of stories in local print and broadcast news
      3. With the media agenda measured, their next task was to assess the public agenda. McCombs and Shaw asked undecided voters to outline what each one considered the key issue of the campaign, regardless of what the candidates might be saying.
      4. The initial Chapel Hill study only demonstrated that the media and public agendas are correlated.
      5. A true test must be able to show that public priorities lag behind the media agenda.
      6. It took a tightly controlled experiment run by Yale researchers to establish a cause-and-effect chain of influence from the media agenda to the public agenda.
      7. Iyengar, Peters, and Kinder’s study was the first of many studies to offer strong evidence that the media agenda causes which stories are salient in the public agenda—the first level of agenda-setting.
  3. Level 2: The media tells us which attributes of issues are most important.
    1. The first level of agenda-setting demonstrates that media tells us what to think about, but do they also tell us how to think about it?
    2. For the first two decades of agenda-setting research, the accepted answer was no.
      1. For a long time, almost every article about the theory included this mantra: the media aren’t very successful in telling us what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about.
      2. But then scholars realized that, by emphasizing certain attributes of issues over other attributes, the media do more than just make topics salient.
  4. The second level of agenda setting is the transfer of salience of a dominant set of attributes that the media associate with an attitude object to the specific features of the image projected on the walls of our minds.
    1. Some scholars call this selection process framing.
    2. 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.”
  5. The press frame people, too, especially political figures.
  6. It’s impossible to report stories without emphasizing certain attributes over others.
    1. For better or worse, framing isn’t optional.
    2. In most studies, the voters’ agenda mirrors the media’s agenda in substance (the first level) and in tone (the second level).
  7. But object salience and attribute framing aren’t the end of the story.
  8. Level 3: The media tell us which issues go together
    1. The media communicates issues as though they are an interconnected web, with some connections stronger than others.
    2. Like framing, these kinds of connections aren’t optional.
    3. Even where a story is placed on a web page or in a newscast might establish such connections.
    4. The third level of agenda-setting examines how the media’s issue map influences the public’s issue map.
  9. Beyond opinion: The behavioral effect of the media’s agenda
    1. Most of the research studies on agenda-setting have measured the effect of media agendas on public opinion.
    2. McCombs now presents several intriguing findings showing that media priorities also influence people’s behavior.
    3. Areas of practical application include coverage of the flu and vaccinations, university enrollment when high crimes are reported, and decreased plane ticket sales after skyjacking reports.
    4. Savvy marketers can also use agenda-setting effects to promote their business products.
  10. Who sets the agenda for the agenda setters?
    1. Agenda-setting research has gathered strong evidence that the media agenda influences the public agenda. This begs the question: What, then, shapes the media agenda?
    2. So far, research has identified several sources journalists rely on to decide what counts as news.
      1. Other new organizations. When one news source influences the agenda of another one, that’s intermedia agenda-setting.
      2. Emerging media can break a story that then gets picked up by mainstream sources.
      3. Partisan media such as political talk radio and websites hold influence.
      4. Candidates and office-holders can sometimes single-handedly set the agenda.
      5. Press releases from public relations professionals repackage the news.
      6. Interest aggregations refers to a cluster of people who demand center stage for their issue.
      7. Gatekeepers can be editors who ultimately determine what gets published.
    3. Disturbingly, fake news appeared to exert at least some influence on the agenda of more credible news organizations.
  11. Need for orientation influences agenda-setting effects
    1. McCombs and Shaw suspected that some viewers might be more resistant to the media’s priorities than others.
    2. The key factor they’ve discovered is our need for orientation.
    3. It represents a drive to make sense of the world around us, to orient our understanding of it.
    4. For some people, need for orientation is an internal drive that motivates them no matter the issue.
    5. McCombs believes both relevance and uncertainty lead us to have a need for orientation on a particular issue.
  12. Melding agendas into communities
    1. McCombs and Shaw’s agenda-setting theory has found an appreciative audience among mass communication researchers because it offers two attractive features: it reaffirms the power of the press while maintaining that individuals are free to choose.
    2. More than ever before, there isn’t one dominant media agenda that descends from the boardrooms of East Coast media establishments.
    3. Multiple media agendas exist and we can choose from among them.
    4. McCombs and Shaw suggest that we can make sense of the media landscape if we sort outlets into two types.
      1. One type is vertical media.
        1. They try to appeal to a broad, diverse audience.
        2. Examples of such vertical media in the United States include the newspaper USA Today, Time and Newsweek magazines, and nightly news broadcasts on ABC, NBC, and CBS.
      2. In contrast, horizontal media “usually connect us via valued special interest and personal interest communities.”
        1. They appeal to niche audiences.
        2. These include Fox News, MSNBC, partisan talk shows, magazines devoted to particular hobbies and industries, and many sources of news on social media.
    5. Agenda-setting theorists believe that we assemble our view of current events from these media and our own experiences.
    6. They call this agendamelding, or “the social process by which we meld agendas from various sources, including other people, to create pictures of the world that fit our experiences and preferences.”
    7. It’s a social process because agendamelding creates communities. People like to spend time with people who think like they do.
      1. An advantage of the digital news environment is that diverse people can speak about public issues and, perhaps, have their voices heard.
      2. Yet the very technology that connects us can also allow us to separate into our own isolated agendamelding communities.
  13. Ethical reflections: Christians’ communitarian ethics.
    1. Christians believes that discovering the truth is still possible if we are willing to examine the nature of our humanity.
    2. Mutuality is the essence of humanness.
    3. His communitarian ethics establish civic transformation rather than objective information as the primary goal of the press.
    4. He insists that media criticism must be willing to reestablish the idea of moral right and wrong.
    5. Journalists have a social responsibility to promote the sacredness of life.
  14. Critique: Who sets the agenda in the digital era?
    1. When compared to the standards for evaluating an objective theory, agenda-setting theory fares well.
      1. Study after study has demonstrated the theory’s ability to explain the data about agendas, and not only in the United States, but elsewhere as well.
      2. That’s because carefully-constructed quantitative research on the theory’s testable hypotheses, conducted over time and through experiments, has built a strong case for the order of causation.
      3. The theory remains relatively simple.
      4. To any company, candidate, or celebrity who cares what the media are saying about them, the theory is practically useful.
      5. Agenda-setting theory is a good model for what an objective theory should be.
    2. The greatest challenge to the theory’s longevity may be the digital era foreseen by McLuhan and other scholars.
      1. McCombs doesn’t seem to think the digital age changes agenda-setting all that much.
      2. But studies in the traditional mold of agenda-setting research may miss the point.
      3. Every time you visit social media or use a search engine, an algorithmic gatekeeper filters the information and decides what you’ll see.
        1. This filtering often occurs on the basis of a number of personal factors.
        2. What exactly does the social media agenda mean when it’s tailored so specifically to the user, precisely because it arises from the user’s own preferences?


CHANGE TO View by Type

Resources
by Theory





KEY NAMES









Instructors can get additional
resources. Read more

Archived chapters (PDF)
from previous editions
are available in
Resources by Type.
See list

New to Theory
Resources?

Find out more in this short
video overview (3:01).


Agenda-Setting Theory
Maxwell McCombs & Donald Shaw

MASS COMMUNICATION: MEDIA EFFECTS


  1. Most of us can’t pay equal attention to more than a dozen issues. Time and mental energy are scarce resources.
    1. The typical person can only focus on about five issues at any one time.
    2. The small set of issues that’s most important to you at the moment is your personal agenda.
    3. Taking the average of those concerns across an entire community, state, or nation is the public agenda—the set of issues most salient (in other words, that capture attention) across a group of people at a given time.
    4. The degree of importance that the news media assigns to issues at a given moment is the media agenda.
    5. The basic hypothesis of the theory is this: over time, the media agenda shapes the public agenda.
    6. McCombs, Shaw, and others have amassed decades of evidence that documents the power of the press to shape our reality.
    7. They've found that agenda-setting occurs in three ways, or levels.
  2. Level 1: The media tells us what to think about.
    1. McCombs wondered if, over time, the public agenda came to reflect the media agenda, such that “we judge as important what the media judge as important.”
    2. In opposition to then-current wisdom that mass communication had limited effects upon its audience, Theodore White came to the conclusion that the media shaped election campaigns
    3. Walter Lippmann claimed that the media act as a mediator between “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.”
    4. What set McCombs and Shaw apart is that they put these hunches to empirical test.
    5. McCombs and Shaw first tested their theory with undecided voters in Chapel Hill, NC.
      1. McCombs and Shaw’s first task was to measure the media agenda.
      2. They established position and length of story as the two main criteria of prominence of stories in local print and broadcast news
      3. With the media agenda measured, their next task was to assess the public agenda. McCombs and Shaw asked undecided voters to outline what each one considered the key issue of the campaign, regardless of what the candidates might be saying.
      4. The initial Chapel Hill study only demonstrated that the media and public agendas are correlated.
      5. A true test must be able to show that public priorities lag behind the media agenda.
      6. It took a tightly controlled experiment run by Yale researchers to establish a cause-and-effect chain of influence from the media agenda to the public agenda.
      7. Iyengar, Peters, and Kinder’s study was the first of many studies to offer strong evidence that the media agenda causes which stories are salient in the public agenda—the first level of agenda-setting.
  3. Level 2: The media tells us which attributes of issues are most important.
    1. The first level of agenda-setting demonstrates that media tells us what to think about, but do they also tell us how to think about it?
    2. For the first two decades of agenda-setting research, the accepted answer was no.
      1. For a long time, almost every article about the theory included this mantra: the media aren’t very successful in telling us what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about.
      2. But then scholars realized that, by emphasizing certain attributes of issues over other attributes, the media do more than just make topics salient.
  4. The second level of agenda setting is the transfer of salience of a dominant set of attributes that the media associate with an attitude object to the specific features of the image projected on the walls of our minds.
    1. Some scholars call this selection process framing.
    2. 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.”
  5. The press frame people, too, especially political figures.
  6. It’s impossible to report stories without emphasizing certain attributes over others.
    1. For better or worse, framing isn’t optional.
    2. In most studies, the voters’ agenda mirrors the media’s agenda in substance (the first level) and in tone (the second level).
  7. But object salience and attribute framing aren’t the end of the story.
  8. Level 3: The media tell us which issues go together
    1. The media communicates issues as though they are an interconnected web, with some connections stronger than others.
    2. Like framing, these kinds of connections aren’t optional.
    3. Even where a story is placed on a web page or in a newscast might establish such connections.
    4. The third level of agenda-setting examines how the media’s issue map influences the public’s issue map.
  9. Beyond opinion: The behavioral effect of the media’s agenda
    1. Most of the research studies on agenda-setting have measured the effect of media agendas on public opinion.
    2. McCombs now presents several intriguing findings showing that media priorities also influence people’s behavior.
    3. Areas of practical application include coverage of the flu and vaccinations, university enrollment when high crimes are reported, and decreased plane ticket sales after skyjacking reports.
    4. Savvy marketers can also use agenda-setting effects to promote their business products.
  10. Who sets the agenda for the agenda setters?
    1. Agenda-setting research has gathered strong evidence that the media agenda influences the public agenda. This begs the question: What, then, shapes the media agenda?
    2. So far, research has identified several sources journalists rely on to decide what counts as news.
      1. Other new organizations. When one news source influences the agenda of another one, that’s intermedia agenda-setting.
      2. Emerging media can break a story that then gets picked up by mainstream sources.
      3. Partisan media such as political talk radio and websites hold influence.
      4. Candidates and office-holders can sometimes single-handedly set the agenda.
      5. Press releases from public relations professionals repackage the news.
      6. Interest aggregations refers to a cluster of people who demand center stage for their issue.
      7. Gatekeepers can be editors who ultimately determine what gets published.
    3. Disturbingly, fake news appeared to exert at least some influence on the agenda of more credible news organizations.
  11. Need for orientation influences agenda-setting effects
    1. McCombs and Shaw suspected that some viewers might be more resistant to the media’s priorities than others.
    2. The key factor they’ve discovered is our need for orientation.
    3. It represents a drive to make sense of the world around us, to orient our understanding of it.
    4. For some people, need for orientation is an internal drive that motivates them no matter the issue.
    5. McCombs believes both relevance and uncertainty lead us to have a need for orientation on a particular issue.
  12. Melding agendas into communities
    1. McCombs and Shaw’s agenda-setting theory has found an appreciative audience among mass communication researchers because it offers two attractive features: it reaffirms the power of the press while maintaining that individuals are free to choose.
    2. More than ever before, there isn’t one dominant media agenda that descends from the boardrooms of East Coast media establishments.
    3. Multiple media agendas exist and we can choose from among them.
    4. McCombs and Shaw suggest that we can make sense of the media landscape if we sort outlets into two types.
      1. One type is vertical media.
        1. They try to appeal to a broad, diverse audience.
        2. Examples of such vertical media in the United States include the newspaper USA Today, Time and Newsweek magazines, and nightly news broadcasts on ABC, NBC, and CBS.
      2. In contrast, horizontal media “usually connect us via valued special interest and personal interest communities.”
        1. They appeal to niche audiences.
        2. These include Fox News, MSNBC, partisan talk shows, magazines devoted to particular hobbies and industries, and many sources of news on social media.
    5. Agenda-setting theorists believe that we assemble our view of current events from these media and our own experiences.
    6. They call this agendamelding, or “the social process by which we meld agendas from various sources, including other people, to create pictures of the world that fit our experiences and preferences.”
    7. It’s a social process because agendamelding creates communities. People like to spend time with people who think like they do.
      1. An advantage of the digital news environment is that diverse people can speak about public issues and, perhaps, have their voices heard.
      2. Yet the very technology that connects us can also allow us to separate into our own isolated agendamelding communities.
  13. Ethical reflections: Christians’ communitarian ethics.
    1. Christians believes that discovering the truth is still possible if we are willing to examine the nature of our humanity.
    2. Mutuality is the essence of humanness.
    3. His communitarian ethics establish civic transformation rather than objective information as the primary goal of the press.
    4. He insists that media criticism must be willing to reestablish the idea of moral right and wrong.
    5. Journalists have a social responsibility to promote the sacredness of life.
  14. Critique: Who sets the agenda in the digital era?
    1. When compared to the standards for evaluating an objective theory, agenda-setting theory fares well.
      1. Study after study has demonstrated the theory’s ability to explain the data about agendas, and not only in the United States, but elsewhere as well.
      2. That’s because carefully-constructed quantitative research on the theory’s testable hypotheses, conducted over time and through experiments, has built a strong case for the order of causation.
      3. The theory remains relatively simple.
      4. To any company, candidate, or celebrity who cares what the media are saying about them, the theory is practically useful.
      5. Agenda-setting theory is a good model for what an objective theory should be.
    2. The greatest challenge to the theory’s longevity may be the digital era foreseen by McLuhan and other scholars.
      1. McCombs doesn’t seem to think the digital age changes agenda-setting all that much.
      2. But studies in the traditional mold of agenda-setting research may miss the point.
      3. Every time you visit social media or use a search engine, an algorithmic gatekeeper filters the information and decides what you’ll see.
        1. This filtering often occurs on the basis of a number of personal factors.
        2. What exactly does the social media agenda mean when it’s tailored so specifically to the user, precisely because it arises from the user’s own preferences?


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