Agenda-setting theory

Agenda-Setting Theory states that the news media have a large influence on audiences, in terms of what stories to consider newsworthy and how much prominence and space to give them.[1] Agenda-setting theory’s main postulate is salience transfer. Salience transfer is the ability of the news media to transfer issues of importance from their news media agendas to public agendas. "Through their day-by-day selection and display of the news, editors and news directors focus our attention and influence our perceptions of what are the most important issues of the day. This ability to influence the salience of topics on the public agenda has come to be called the agenda setting role of the news media."[2] Related to agenda setting is agenda building theory which explores how an issue comes to the attention policy makers and media. [3]




Following the era of limited media effect paradigm, established by Lazarsfeld and colleagues’ The People’s Choice research, the development of agenda setting hypothesis signals “the rediscovery of a powerful effects model.” The powerful effects model can be traced back to Cohen (1963)’s argument that“the mass media may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but the media stunningly successful in telling their audience what to think about.” [4]On a related note, agenda-setting model brought about a paradigm shift: the rejection of persuasion as a central organizing paradigm.[5] That is, media is not telling audiences what to think, but what to think about.

The media agenda is the set of issues addressed by media sources and the public agenda which are issues the public consider important.[6] Agenda-setting theory was introduced in 1972 by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in their ground breaking study of the role of the media in 1968 presidential campaign in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The researchers, surveyed 100 undecided voters during the 1968 presidential elections on what they thought were key issues and measured that against the actual media content.[7]The ranking of issues was almost identical with a correlation of .97, and the conclusions matched their hypothesis that the mass media positioned the agenda for public opinion by emphasizing specific topics.[8] Subsequent research on agenda-setting theory provided evidence for the cause-and-effect chain of influence being debated by critics in the field.

Causality: Agenda Setting or Agenda Reflection?

To confirm agenda-setting hypothesis, evidence should show that media agendas precede public agendas. In this regard, Kosicki raised a point that “if real world problems are driving both audience interest and news coverage, then it is not meaningful to attribute the cause to media.” He continued, therefore, saying that “a more meaningful case of agenda setting is one in which a problem is ongoing at a relatively constant level and media attention comes and goes in response to its own cues.”[5]

One particular study made leaps to prove a cause-effect relationship. The study was conducted by Yale researchers, Shanto Iyengar, Mark Peters, and Donald Kinder. The researchers had three groups of subjects fill out questionnaires about their own concerns and then each group watched different evening news programs, each of which emphasized a different issue. After watching the news for four days, the subjects again filled out questionnaires and the issues that they rated as most important matched the issues they viewed on the evening news.[9] The study demonstrated a cause-and-effect relationship between media agenda and public agenda. As of 2004, there were over 400 empirical studies examining the effects of Agenda Setting.[10] The theory has evolved beyond the media's influence on the public's perceptions of issue salience to political candidates and corporate reputation.[11]


The agenda-setting function has multiple components:

  • Media agenda are issues discussed in the media, such as newspapers, television, and radio.
  • Public agenda are issues discussed among members of the public.
  • Policy agenda are issues that policy makers consider important, such as legislators.
  • Corporate agenda are issues that big corporations consider important.

These four agendas are interrelated. The two basic assumptions that underlie most research on agenda-setting are that the press and the media do not reflect reality, they filter and shape it, and the media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues.

Media agenda in the market place

The key role of agenda-setting is to promote social consensus and create sense of community. This social function is threatened by growing number of media channels. The expanding choice of information causes the more fragmented the media system. As compared to initial agenda-setting study in McCombs’ Chapel Hill, the media environment has changed considerably.

Under these circumstances, citizens’ participation in agenda-building processes is necessary to build a sense of community. In order to maintain a healthy democracy, it is necessary to have the numerically major, but politically marginalized people’s voices heard by allowing them to participate in the pressure system at least to a certain degree. In this sense, building public agendas is an indispensable process that keeps a democracy alive.[12]


The media uses diffusion to spread ideas and aid in its agenda setting. Opinion Leaders and boundary spanners are very important to the media at using their networks to pass on the flow of information.

An opinion leader is often someone who is thought of by others to know a significant amount of information on a topic or is an "expert". This could be anyone from a specialist in a certain field, a politician who is the head of a specific congressional committee, or a mom who is very active in the PTA. They are often at the center of a social network, more attentive to outside information and capable of influence. Since the opinion leaders are those in a social network who are most likely to watch the news or pay attention to the news media, they are an extremely important tool at spreading information to the masses.

Boundary Spanners are those in a social network who can span across various social networks. They can be essential to the flow of novel information. Boundary spanners can be used by the news media in setting its agenda by getting information and ideas to a variety of social networks, rather than just one.

A study showing the effects of diffusion was Project Revere. Sociologists at the University of Washington from 1951 to 1953 would drop leaflets from an airplane onto a town. They then would see how long it would take for the information to pass by word of mouth to those who did not get a leaflet. Their findings showed that children are very effective in the diffusion process, thus proving how easy it is for a child to be affected by the news media.

The Accessibility Bias and Controversy

S. Iyengar's article titled "The accessibility bias in politics: television news and public opinion" looks at just this theory.

He states, "In general, 'accessibility bias' argument stipulates that information that can be more easily retrieved from memory tends to dominate judgments, opinions and decisions, and that in the area of public affairs, more accessible information is information that is more frequently or more recently conveyed by the media."[13]

Although there has been a widely held assumption that the primary mechanism of agenda setting and priming is accessibility (i.e., the ease with which a set of ideas or knowledge can be retrieved from memory), no empirical evidence confirmed the mediating role of accessibility. [14] Rather, findings indicate that there is more to agenda setting than accessibility. For example, research on the concept of need for orientation suggests that the degree of agenda-setting effects is dependent upon perceived issue relevance and orientation toward resolving uncertainty. [15][16][17] Furthermore, Nelson et al., found that perceived importance of specific frames plays a major role in shaping public perceptions of the issue at hand, whereas accessibility plays only a minor role.[18] Therefore, as Weaver argued, “not all persons are equally affected by the same amount of prominence of media coverage, and not all easily accessible information is considered important.”[19]

Cognitive Effects Model

Early media effects studies done by Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee showed that political campaigns have very little effect on voters, but instead that those closest to them (family and friends) as well as cognitions.

The Cognitive effects model found that the media has an indirect influence on an audiences' attitude. A viewer already has set ideas and opinions, the media cannot do much to change those. However by showing certain stories more often than others and shaping the agenda they can shape what an audience puts importance on. For example, if the media reports more on the economy than on international news, then people will have more information on the economy and think that the issue is more important than other things that are going on around the world.


Research has focused on characteristics of audience, the issues, and the media that might predict variations in the agenda setting effect.

Humans are curious by nature, we as a species have an innate drive to understand the environment around us. This disconnect of not knowing our surroundings or dissonance, as Leon Festinger would put it, means we either need to change our way of thinking or change our behavior to come back into a state of consonance or connection. Orientation is a term to describe the need for individuals to orient themselves to their surroundings/environment. In the case of agenda setting theory, we know that news media provide this orientation.

Mccombs[20] states that, "need for orientation is a psychological concept, which means that it describes individual differences in the desire for orienting cues and background information." Two concepts: relevance and uncertainty, define an individual's need for orientation. Relevancy is the first and of primary importance as an individual will feel less dissonant if a situation or issue is not personally relevant. Hence, if relevancy is low, people will feel the need for less orientation. There are many issues in our country that are just not relevant to people, because they do not affect us. Many news organizations attempt to frame issues in a way that attempts to make them relevant to its viewers/readers. This is their way of keeping their viewership/readership high "Level of uncertainty is the second and subsequent defining condition of need for orientation. Frequently, individuals already have all the information that they desire about a topic. Their degree of uncertainty is low."[21] When issues are of high personal relevance and uncertainty low, the need to monitor any changes in those issues will be present and moderate the need for orientation. If at any point in time viewers/readers have high relevance and high uncertainty about any type of issue/event/election campaign there was a high need for orientation.

Research done by Weaver in 1977 suggested that individuals vary on their need for orientation. Need for orientation is a combination of the individual’s interest in the topic and uncertainty about the issue. The higher levels of interest and uncertainty produce higher levels of need for orientation. So the individual would be considerably likely to be influenced by the media stories (psychological aspect of theory).[6]

Research performed by Zucker in 1978 suggested that an issue is obtrusive if most members of the public have had direct contact with it, and less obtrusive if audience members have not had direct experience. This means that agenda setting results should be strongest for unobtrusive issues because audience members must rely on media for information on these topics.[6]

Media salience: a key independent variable in agenda setting theory is mostly recognized as a single construct. Theoretical explications of media salience scholarship varies throughout the agenda setting literature. Spiro Kiousis perused the relevant literature and discovered that 3 dimensions of media salience emerged: attention, prominence, and valence.[22] Thus developing his multi-construct model of media salience.

  • Attention: based on the amount of coverage/exposure the news media give an object.
  • Prominence: A framing technique used to highlight or position an attribute/object in a context that communicates its importance. Kiousis also refers to just the presence of news stories covered by prestigious news organizations(e.g. Washington Post, New York Times, etc...) as a signaling factor to the public in giving news stories prominence. And,
  • Valence: Refers to the affective (emotional) elements of the media content. "Attribute coverage also transmits cues that shape the overall affective salience of issues, candidates, and other objects (e.g., how interesting or appealing they are). Therefore, affective elements in news can also enhance or reduce the overall salience of objects."[23]

Quote on agenda setting- "The media doesn't tell us what to think; it tells us what to think about"- Bernard C. Cohen (1963)

Characteristics of Agenda-setting Research

Based on the agenda-setting literature, Kosicki [24]summarized the following characteristics of agenda-setting studies:

1. Agenda-setting research deals with the importance or salience of public issues.

2. A public issue is seen as a rather broad, abstract, content-free topic domain, devoid of controversy or contending forces.

3. Agenda-setting studies have a twin focus on media content and audience perception: both measuring the amount and time devoted to a certain issue by mass media and the amount of public attention to that issue are integral components of agenda-setting research

4. Agenda setting is characterized by some desire to deal with a range of issues rank-ordered into an agenda.

5. Agenda setting is proposed as an effect of specific media content or trends in that content, not a general effect of watching television or reading newspapers or newsmagazines.

Framing and Second-level Agenda setting: Similarities, Differences, and Controversies

According to Weaver[25], framing and second-level agenda setting have the following characteristics:


- Both are more concerned with how issues or other objects are depicted in the media than with which issues or objects are more or less prominently reported.

- Both focus on most salient or prominent aspects of themes or descriptions of the objects of interest.

- Both are concerned with ways of thinking rather than objects of thinking


- Framing does seem to include a broader range of cognitive processes – moral evaluations, causal reasoning, appeals to principle, and recommendations for treatment of problems – than does second-level agenda setting (the salience of attributes of an object)

Based on these shared characteristics, McCombs and colleagues[26] recently argued that framing effects should be seen as the extension of agenda setting. In other words, according to them, the premise that framing is about selecting “a restricted number of thematically related attributes” [27] for media representation can be understood as the process of transferring the salience of issue attributes (i.e., second-level agenda setting). That is, according to McCombs and colleagues’ arguments, framing falls under the umbrella of agenda setting.

According to Price and Tewksbury[28], however, agenda setting and framing are built on different theoretical premises: agenda setting is based on accessibility, while framing is concern with applicability (i.e., the relevance between message features and one’s stored ideas or knowledge). Accessibility-based explanation of agenda setting is also applied to second-level agenda setting. That is, transferring the salience of issue attributes (i.e., second-level agenda setting) is a function of accessibility.

For framing effects, empirical evidence shows that the impact of frames on public perceptions is mainly determined by perceived importance of specific frames rather than by the quickness of retrieving frames.[29] That is, the way framing effects transpires is different from the way second-level agenda setting is supposed to take place (i.e., accessibility). On a related note, Scheufele and Tewksbury [30]argues that, because accessibility and applicability vary in their functions of media effects, “the distinction between accessibility and applicability effects has obvious benefits for understanding and predicting the effects of dynamic information environments.”

Taken together, it can be concluded that the integration of framing into agenda setting is either impossible because they are based on different theoretical premises or imprudent because merging the two concepts would result in the loss of our capabilities to explain various media effects.

Agenda setting vs. Framing

Scheufele and Tewksbury argue that “framing differs significantly from these accessibility-based models [i.e., agenda setting and priming]. It is based on the assumption that how an issue is characterized in news reports can have an influence on how it is understood by audiences;”[31] the difference between whether we think about an issue and how we think about it. Framing and agenda setting differs in their functions in the process of news production, information processing and media effects.

(a) News production: Although “both frame building and agenda building refer to macroscopic mechanisms that deal with message construction rather than media effects,” frame building is more concerned with the news production process than agenda building. In other words, “how forces and groups in society try to shape public discourse about an issue by establishing predominant labels is of far greater interest from a framing perspective than from a traditional agenda-setting one.”

(b) News processing: For framing and agenda setting, different conditions seem to be needed in processing messages to produce respective effects. Framing effect is more concerned with audience attention to news messages, while agenda setting is more with repeated exposure to messages.

(c) Locus of effect: Agenda-setting effects are determined by the ease with which people can retrieve from their memory issues recently covered by mass media, while framing is the extent to which media messages fit ideas or knowledge people have in their knowledge store.

Levels of agenda setting

  • The first-level agenda setting is most traditionally studied by researchers. Simply put, the focus is/was on major issues/objects and the transfer of the salience of those objects/issues. From these broad issues, agenda setting evolved to look not only at the major issues/objects, but to attributes of those issues.
  • In second-level agenda setting, the news media focuses on the characteristics of the objects or issues. This transfer of attribute salience is considered second-level effects or attribute agenda-setting. "The second dimension refers to the transmission of attribute salience to the minds of the public. More specifically, each object has numerous attributes, or characteristics and properties that fill out the picture of that particular object. As certain perspectives and frames are employed in news coverage, they can draw public attention to certain attributes and away from others."[32] In this level the media suggest how the people should think about the issue. There are two types of attributes: cognitive (subtantative, or topics) and affective (evaluative, or positive, negative, neutral).
    • Additionally, there are several theoretical concepts that fall under the umbrella of attribute agenda setting. Some of these include: status conferral, stereotyping, priming, gatekeeping(which happens in both levels), compelling arguments, and of primary importance, the concept of framing.
  1. Status Conferral: Status conferral refers to the amount of attention given to specific individuals. "The news media bestow prestige and enhance the authority of individuals and groups by legitimizing their status. Recognition by the press or radio or magazines or newsreels testifies that one has arrived, that one is important enough to have been singled out from the large anonymous masses, that one's behavior and opinions are significant enough to require public notice."[33]
  2. Stereotyping: Stereotyping is best defined by Taylor;[34] "Consensus among members of one group regarding the attributes of another." Furthermore, a cognitive orientation view of stereotyping helps illustrate why this helps attribute salience transfer. "The cognitive orientation view assumes that humans are limited in the amount of incoming information that they can process, and hence form stereotypes as one way to reduce the cognitive burden of dealing with a complex world."[35] Which reaffirms the previous notions of our brains being cognitive misers.
  3. Priming: There are perspectives as to what priming actually is, but the primary concept is such: "According to the priming theory, news media exposure presumably causes the activation of related knowledge, which is more likely to be retrieved and used in later judgments because it is more accessible in memory and comes to mind spontaneously and effortlessly.", it's the actual act of linking two different elements in order to generate a general known idea.[36] The concept of priming is supported by the accessibility bias argument as well as the principle of resonance as some attributes may resonate longer with individuals than others. Iyengar and Kinder,[37] define priming as “changes in standards that people use to make political evaluations.” This definition is primarily focused on the political realm as Scheufele and Tewksbury[38] go on to say that “priming occurs when news content suggest to news audiences that they ought to use specific issues as benchmarks for evaluating the performance of leaders and government.” As individuals make their choices in supporting/voting for a (n) candidate/issue, they are more likely to add this evaluative dimension to their decisions. This still follows the accessibility bias argument (memory based models) and Iyengar and Kinder[39] take it a step further by arguing that “priming is a temporal extension of agenda setting” and that just making issues/candidates salient, can affect people’s decisions/judgments when making choices about political candidates/issues.
  4. Gatekeeping: The concept of gatekeeping attempts to answer the question of who sets the news media agenda? Mccombs,[40] states that we need to look at "three key elements: major sources who provide information for news stories, other news organizations, and journalisms norms and traditions." Major sources include: elected leaders(national/local leaders), political campaigns, organizations, interest groups, public information officers, and public relations professionals. Other news organizations refers to how news organizations feed off of each other, borrowing stories from one another or at times paying for them. It is widely known that the New York Times is considered the intermedia-agenda setter for most news organizations (i.e., most new organizations take their lead from the times). Mccombs[41] notes that "journalists validate their sense of news by observing and the work of their colleagues. Local newspapers and televisions stations note the news agenda offered each day by their direct competitors for local attention. Local outlets also note the agenda advanced by new organizations with higher status. In the US these are the major regional newspapers, the Associated Press, the national television networks, and the elite newspapers in New York and Washington." Many times the executive editor/producer in news organizations have to make the final decision with regard to what gets printed/televised and what doesn't. Finding stories that are newsworthy can be difficult, but most journalists look for these characteristics throughout the information they collect. These generally are: impact, proximity, timeliness, prominence, importance, conflict, contradiction, contrast, novelty, and human interest. Scanning the environment and looking for these characteristics to ensure a story is newsworthy, is a major part of the norms and traditions followed by journalism.
  5. Framing: Although many scholars have differing opinions of what exactly framing is, Mccombs[42] defines it as, "the selection of - and emphasis upon - particular attributes for the news media agenda when talking about an object (the fact of cutting and trimming news stories in order to filter it and shape it as the sender wish) . In turn, as we know from attribute agenda setting, people who frame objects, placing various degrees of emphasis on the attributes of persons, public issues or other objects when they think or talk about them." In other words, it is not just what is said in news reports, but how subjects are characterized and presented. It is through this unique characterization/portrayal of issues/objects that communicates certain meanings to audiences apart from just stating facts and figures; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Entman, 1993 not only defines frames as “involving selection and salience. 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.”[43] But also goes on to describe these four functions: “1) defining problems-determining what a causal agent is doing with what costs and benefits, usually measured in terms of common cultural values; 2) diagnosing causes-identifying the forces creating the problem; 3) making moral judgments-evaluate causal agents and their effects; and 4) suggesting remedies-offering and justifying treatments for the problems and predict their likely effects.”[44] It is through these four functions that the news media can highlight/characterize certain issues/candidates/problems/attributes and/or choose to ignore others. Furthermore, Tankard, Hendrickson, Silberman, Bliss, and Ghanem"' defined news media framing 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."[45] When the news media supply the context, select what to emphasize or exclude information, they show us how to think about an object/issue/candidate. In order for this to be effective the audience must be able to internalize the information and “individual’s therefore apply interpretive schemas or “primary frameworks” (Goffman, 1974, p. 24)[46] to classify it meaningfully.”[47] Journalists, political campaigns, and the news media use these primary frameworks as a baseline to make the understanding of issues easier for audiences, thus making them less complex.
  • Clearly, trying to operationalize a definition for news framing can be very tedious as subjective definitions vary from scholar to scholar. Matthes states in his meta-analysis of framing literature that, “translation of framing definitions to concrete, operational steps is not transparent in a huge part of the literature. Some definitions are general, giving little information about how to operationalize frames.”[48]


The theory is used in political advertising, political campaigns and debates, business news and corporate reputation,[11] business influence on federal policy,[49] legal systems, trials,[50] role of groups, audience control, public opinion, and public relations.[11]

Strengths and weaknesses of theory

It has an explanatory power because it explains why most people prioritize the same issues as important. It also has predictive power because it predicts that if people are exposed to the same media, they will feel the same issues are important. Its meta-theoretical assumptions are balanced on the scientific side and it lays groundwork for further research. Furthermore, it has organizing power because it helps organize existing knowledge of media effects.

There are also limitations, such as news media users may not be as ideal as the theory assumes. People may not be well-informed, deeply engaged in public affairs, thoughtful and skeptical. Instead, they may pay only casual and intermittent attention to public affairs and remain ignorant of the details. For people who have made up their minds, the effect is weakened. News media cannot create or conceal problems, they can only alter the awareness, priorities and salience people attach to a set of problems. Research has largely been inconclusive in establishing a causal relationship between public salience and media coverage.[citation needed]

Another limitation is that there is limited research in the realm of non-traditional forms of news media (i.e. Social Media, Blogs, etc...) and its Agenda Setting Role. Although blogs and other forms of Computer Mediated Communication appear to be quickly gaining ground against traditional news media outlets, more research still needs to be done. What is plainly visible is that, "In an effort to survive, traditional newsrooms have embraced newsroom blogs as an alternative vehicle for news delivery."[51] Yet, there still continues to be a socio-economic gap (although likely a small one) between those who use use non-traditional forms of news media and those who don't.

See also



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  51. ^ Meraz, S. (2008). The blogosphere's gender gap: Differences in visibility, popularity, and authority. In Paula Poindexter (Ed.), Women, men and news. New, York: Routledge.

Further reading

Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 79, 7-25.

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