Agenda Setting Theory is a media effects theory that explains how media affects the emphasis viewers place on certain topics happening in society. The ‘catch-phrase’ associated with this theory is that the media does not tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about. Bernard Cohen actually stated this is 1963 referring to the press – “The press 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.” This comes from the ideology that the media can place topics in front of us, like in the news or on social media, which will show us that these topics are important, but media cannot tell us how to feel about these topics or what opinions to form regarding these topics. In a study done by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in 1972, they studied this. They focused on the 1968 presidential campaign and what viewers were concerned about in comparison to what the mass media was focusing on. After randomly selecting registered voters in the Chapel Hill region in North Carolina, they asked respondents questions about key issues and their importance (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). They found an almost perfect correlation between what their respondents said were important issues and what the media was reporting on, which proved that media priorities become public priorities. This is incredibly important because mass media may be the only connection that voters have to politics and it is important to have educated voters and citizens. If the media can report on the most important aspects of politics, at least people are getting exposure to these topics. Studies relating to this theory are even now expanding into disciplines like history, advertising, and medical studies, showing its relevance to other aspects of life, not just news and politics.
The ideas of framing and priming play a role in this ideology. The media can prime our thoughts of an issue through constant repetition and prominence given to a specific topic. This keeps these ideas and issues in the minds of consumers, making them easily remembered. Framing, is how sources of media organize, define, and structure a story (Weiss, 2009). Media use these techniques to help consumers decide what to think about. News for example, viewers see the same headlines and topics on multiple platforms – tv, news apps, social media, papers, etc. But different sources can frame stories to show consumers what they want them to know. Consumers then have the discretion to accept or challenge those opinions placed in front of them and create their own meanings of the world.
There are some limitations with this theory though. One big one is if media sets the public agenda, where does the media agenda come from? But, the media agenda in theory is influenced by the public agenda through ratings, surveys, market research, etc. (Weiss, 2009). Another limitation is that viewers who do not find the media/news credible are less likely to have their agendas set by the media (Weiss, 2009). This also applies to viewers who disagree with the media agenda. So, there is room for further exploration on this theory, but many people find it to be credible and meaningful.
So, despite its few limitations, Agenda Setting Theory is a very important theory in regard to media effects. A huge contribution to the study of this theory is credited to Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw as well as Bernard Cohen. Moving forward, try to consider how media sets your personal agenda and how it affects what you think is important in the world today.
Karell, Daniel. “The Agenda-Setting Theory in Mass Communication | Alvernia Online.” Alvernia University Online, 20 Feb. 2018, online.alvernia.edu/agenda-setting-theory/.
Mass media | agenda setting theory. (n.d.). Retrieved December 5, 2018, from https://www.utwente.nl/en/bms/communication-theories/sorted-by-cluster/Mass-Media/Agenda-Setting_Theory/
Maxwell E. McCombs, & Donald L. Shaw. (1972). The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass
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Weiss, D. (2009). Agenda-setting theory. In S. Littlejohn & K. Foss, Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks California 91320 United States: SAGE Publications, Inc. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781412959384.n12
Written by Caitlyn Creasy, 2018.