Uploaded by FightMeSkyler ASMR

An Overview of Agenda Setting Theory in

An Overview of Agenda Setting Theory in Mass Communications
Amber M. Freeland
University of North Texas
November 12, 2012
An Overview of Agenda Setting Theory in Mass Communications
The Agenda Setting Theory was first introduced in 1972 in Public Opinion Quarterly by
Drs. Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw. This theory was developed as a study on the 1968
presidential election where Democratic incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson was ousted by Republican
challenger Richard Nixon. Knows as the “Chapel Hill Study,” McCombs and Shaw surveyed
100 residents of Chapel Hill, North Carolina on what they thought were the most important
issues of the election how that compared to what the local and national media reported were the
most important issues (McCombs & Shaw, 1972).
Their theory, also known as the Agenda Setting Function of the Mass Media, suggested
that the media sets the public agenda by telling you what to think about, although not exactly
what to think. The abstract in their first article about this theory states:
In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an
important part in shaping political reality. Readers learn not only about a given issue by
also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a
news story and its position. In reflecting what candidates are saying during a campaign,
the mass media may well determine the important issues – that is, the media may set the
“agenda” of the campaign (McCombs, 2003).
Since that time, McCombs and Shaw have expanded on this theory, producing many research
articles and even extending the theory to include what they now call Second Level Agenda
Setting (Davie, 2011).
History of Agenda Setting Theory
Agenda Setting Theory originated in Walter Lippmann’s 1922 classic, Public Opinion. In
the first chapter, Lippmann establishes the principal connection between world events and the
images in the public mind (Lippmann, 1922). In 1963, Bernard Cohen noted 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.” Cohen made the observation that “the world will look
different to different people depending on the map that is drawn for them by writers, editors and
publishers of the paper they read” (Cohen, 1963). His ideas later led to the formalized theory
developed by McCombs and Shaw.
During the 1968 election, McCombs and Shaw explored Lippmann’s idea of imagery by
examining the media’s agenda and comparing it to the key issues of the undecided voters. What
they found was that the voter’s agenda highly correlated to that of the news media (McCombs &
Shaw, 1972).
Another scholar, G. Ray Funkhouser, conducted a similar study at the same time. While
all three scholars presented their findings at the same academic conference, Funkhouser did not
formally name his theory and did not pursue his research after his article was published so he has
been historically denied credit for “discovering” the theory.
Basic Assumptions of AST
In its most basic sense, agenda setting is the creation of public awareness and concern of
salient issues by the news media (Agenda Setting Theory, 2012). The two most basic
assumptions of agenda setting are: (1) the press and the media do not reflect reality; they filter
and shape it; (2) media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive
those issues as more important than other issues (Agenda Setting Theory, 2012). The time frame
for this is one of the most critical aspects of the agenda setting role in mass communications.
Agenda setting occurs through a cognitive process known as “accessibility,” which
implies that the more frequently and prominently the news media covers an issue, the more that
issue becomes accessible in the audience’s memory (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987). Basically, when
surveyed about what they feel are the most important problems the country faces, respondents
reply with issues that the media focuses on the most. For example, when FOX News issued a
poll regarding President Obama’s birth certificate, 37 percent of Republican respondents said
they believe that Obama was not a natural born citizen compared to just 12 percent of Democrats
(Blanton, 2011). The agenda setting theory suggests that this is the result of repeated coverage by
FOX News of the birth certificate issue, an issue that was not covered as much by other networks.
Three Types of Agenda Setting
There are three basic types of agenda setting according to Everett Rogers and J.W.
Dearing (1988): public, media and policy agenda setting. Public agenda setting focuses on the
audience’s agenda while media agenda setting focuses on the influence of the mass media on the
audience. Policy agenda setting, which has been mostly ignored by Rogers and Dearing (1988),
deals with how media and public agendas might influence the decisions of elite policy makers.
This part of the theory has since been explored by other scholars who want to further examine
the factors that influence elite policy makers’ agendas (Walgrave & Val Aelst, 2006).
Out of these three types, the media agenda setting model has probably taken the most
criticism. In the book Approaches to Audiences (2012), David Gauntlett suggests that there a few
things wrong with the idea of media effects research. First, he argues that the model tackles
social problems, like violence, backwards by blaming the media rather than examining the
person committing violence. The argument is also limited in that the blame is only directed
towards fictional violence and not the real violence shown in the news or serious factual
programs. Another argument Gauntlett (2012) makes is that the very idea of media agenda
setting is the result of conservative ideology and paranoia. Anyone who listens to or watches
conservative news sources can testify to the constant barrage of complaints about the “liberal
Audience Effects Model
When examining agenda setting and the media’s influence on an audience, one has to
consider the audience’s predisposition to certain beliefs. According to the audience effects model,
the media’s coverage of events and issues interact with the audience’s pre-existing sensitivities
to produce changes in issues concerns. This means that an audience that is already highly
sensitive to an issue will be most affected by an issue that is given increased news exposure
while the same issue may have a limited effect on other groups.
Another issue that causes variations in the audience effect is the correlation between the
public agenda and the media agenda and whether the issue is obtrusive or unobtrusive (Walgrave
& Van Aelst, 2006). Obtrusive issues are those that affect nearly everyone, such as high gas
prices or an increased cost of food at the grocery store. Unobtrusive issues are those that are
more distant to the public, like a political scandal or the genocide in Darfur. Research suggests
that the obtrusiveness of an issue is based on the audience’s personal experience with the topic.
So media coverage about the unemployment rate might not affect those in a stable job as much
as those audience members who have recently been unemployed (Walgrave & Van Aelst, 2006).
Criticisms of AST
One of the most common criticisms of the agenda setting theory is that is entirely too
difficult to measure. Surveys regarding media content and public responses are typically divided
into very broad categories and results are usually too inflated to be considered truly relevant or
accurate. The theory itself is inherently casual both in its surveying method and in the sheer
number of variables that affect the results (Rogers & Dearing, 1988).
For example, if you were studying the media’s effect on violence in society, you would
have to first consider the difference between factual violence and fictional violence, which may
or may not make a difference to the viewer. Then you would have to track how many times in
incident of violence occurs in the media and attempt to calculate how many times a person
could/would be exposed to that content. But before you can make any conclusions, you would
need to look at general rates of violence and individual instances of violence and determine if
there is any correlation.
None of this even begins to address the issues surrounding the person who committed the
act of violence in the first place. What was their family life like? Were they the victims of abuse
or other violence? How has that affected them? How much violence in the media were they
exposed to? Are there any other variables that could contribute to a person’s likelihood of
committing violence? When you really examine all of the variables, you can quickly see how
impossible it is to come to any concrete conclusion or hard data to support the agenda setting
Future of AST
Thanks to advances in technology, there are now so many more types of media available
– and potentially many more ways media can influence the masses. When this theory was first
developed, media was a one-way communication model with radio, television, film, and print
sources pushing content onto the audience. With that idea in mind, it is easy to see how the
agenda setting theory came to flourish. Now we live in an age where media is mostly a two-way
communication model and we have near unlimited sources for content. The Internet and the
various forms of social media allow the public to engage in public discourse with our media
sources, an idea unheard of in the early days of agenda setting theory.
So what does this mean? There are several implications. One idea is that the agenda
setting theory will eventually die out because the media does not hold as much influence as it
once did. Not only do we have choice in our media content, we can also communicate with the
sources and push our own ideas and agendas back at the media, the public and even to the elite
policy makers. This also indicates that the public agenda will grow in response now that we can
choose our own media sources, access them at any time and help form public opinion and policy.
In short, the agenda setting theory may have a shorter shelf-life than McCombs and Shaw
originally anticipated.
References (APA Style)
Agenda setting theory. (2012). Retrieved November 10, 2012, from
Blanton, D. (2011). Fox news poll: 24 percent believe Obama not born in U.S.. Retrieved
November 10, 2012, from http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/04/07/fox-news-poll-24percent-believe-obama-born/
Davie, G. (2011, ). Agenda setting theory: Quick overview of agenda setting Message posted to
Gauntlett, D. Ten things wrong with 'media effects' theory. Retrieved November 11, 2012, from
Iyengar, S., & Kinder, D. (1987). News That Matters: Television and American Opinion (2010th
Ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Lippmann, W. (1922). Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
McCombs, M. (2003). The agenda-setting role of the mass media in the shaping of public
McCombs, M., & Shaw, D. (1972). The agenda setting function of mass media. Public Opinion
Quarterly, 36(2) doi: 10.1086/26799
Rogers, E. M., & Dearing, J. W. (1988). Agenda-setting research: Where has it been? Where is it
going? Communication Yearbook, 11, 555-594.
Walgrave, S., & Van Aelst, P. (2006). The contingency of the mass media's political agenda
setting power: Toward a preliminary theory. Journal of Communication, 56, 88-109.
Weaver, D. H. (2007). Thoughts on agenda setting, framing, and priming. Journal of
Communication, doi: 10.1111/j1460-2466.2006.00333.x