9/11/2009 3:27:00 PM
By David H. Weaver
How do journalists’ stories, especially
about politics or other issues of public
importance, affect public perceptions?
Answering this question has led to one of
the most popular approaches to studying
the effects of media coverage. It is known
as the agenda-setting function (or effect)
of mass media.
First tested in the 1968 U.S. presidential election by University of North Carolina journalism
professors Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, this approach originally focused on the ability
of the mass media to tell the public what to think about rather than what to think. This was a
sharp break from previous media effects studies that had focused on what people thought — their
opinions and attitudes — and on behaviors such as voting.
In their original 1968 study, published in Public Opinion Quarterly in 1972, McCombs and Shaw
quoted Bernard Cohen, author of The Press and Foreign Policy. Cohen wrote that 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” (Cohen 1963, p. 13). They also quoted from
Kurt and Gladys Lang’s chapter on the mass media and voting in a book about public opinion:
The mass media force attention to certain issues. They build up public images of political
figures. They are constantly presenting objects suggesting what individuals in the mass should
think about, know about, have feelings about. (Lang & Lang 1966, p. 468)
To test this agenda-setting effect of mass media, McCombs and Shaw analyzed the content of
four local newspapers, the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and the NBC and CBS evening
news broadcasts. They compared the amount and placement of coverage these news media gave
to key issues with undecided voters’ answers to a survey question asking what they were most
concerned about — that is, the two or three main things that they thought the government should
concentrate on doing something about. This study produced very strong correlations between the
media coverage that an issue received and people’s ranking of issues that concerned them.
McCombs and Shaw concluded that the public learns not only about a given issue but also how
much importance to attach to that issue, based on both the amount of information in news reports
and the position of that information.
Since this initial study of media agenda setting, several hundred studies have been carried out by
scholars in the United States and other countries such as Germany, Great Britain, Israel, Italy,
Japan, The Netherlands, Spain and Taiwan. An article by McCombs in 2004 summarizes many
of them. Most of these studies have focused on the relationship between news media ranking of
issues (by amount and prominence of coverage) and public rankings of the perceived importance
of these issues. This is a type of research that Dearing and Rogers (1996) have called public
agenda setting to distinguish it from studies that are concerned mainly with the causes of changes
in the media agenda (media agenda setting) or the impact of media agendas on public policy
agendas (policy agenda setting).
The evidence from scores of such public agenda-setting studies is mixed. But on the whole it
tends to support a positive correlation —and often a causal relationship — between media
agendas and public agendas at the aggregate (or group) level. This is especially true for
relatively unobtrusive issues that do not directly impact the lives of most people, such as foreign
policy and government scandal.
A second level of agenda setting
In the majority of studies to date, the unit of analysis on each agenda is an object, a public issue
or person. But objects have attributes, or characteristics. When the news media report on public
issues or political candidates, they describe these objects.
Because of the limited capacity of the news agenda, however, journalists can only present a few
aspects of any object in the news. A few attributes are prominent and frequently mentioned,
some are given passing notice, and many others are omitted . In short, news reports also present
an agenda of attributes that vary considerably in perceived importance (see Weaver, McCombs,
& Shaw 2004 for more about this).
Similarly, when people talk about and think about these objects — public issues, political
candidates, and so on — the attributes ascribed to the objects also vary considerably in
importance. These agendas of attributes have been called "the second level" of agenda setting to
distinguish them from the first level, which has traditionally focused on issues.
The perspectives and frames that journalists employ draw attention to certain attributes of the
objects of news coverage, as well as to the objects themselves. This approach to understanding
opinion formation differs from more traditional studies because it makes explicit the indirect
links between media coverage and the formation of opinions, rather than predicting a direct
effect of media coverage on people's opinions.
Agenda setting and priming
Several scholars have tried to link agenda-setting research with studies of “priming” that
examine the effects of media agendas on public attitudes as well as public concerns (McCombs,
Shaw, & Weaver 1997). The focus on the consequences of agenda-setting for public opinion can
be traced back at least to Weaver, McCombs, and Spellman (1975), who focused in a 1972-73
panel study on the effects of Watergate news coverage. These scholars proposed that the media
may do more than teach which issues are most important. The media may also provide “the
issues and topics to use in evaluating certain candidates and parties, not just during political
campaigns, but also in the longer periods between campaigns” (p. 471).
The basic idea of priming is that by increasing the perceived importance of some
issues or topics (and also their characteristics), media coverage can influence the
standards by which certain people or groups are evaluated. A recent article by
Son and Weaver (2006) confirms that the media attention to a particular
candidate, and selected attributes of that candidate, do influence his or her
standing in the polls. The effect is cumulative rather than immediate. And an
earlier study by Weaver (1991) found that increased prominence of an issue was
associated with public opinion and behavior regarding the issue.
Why is agenda setting research important to editors and reporters?
In my opinion, those who make decisions about news media content should pay
attention to the research on agenda setting because this research suggests that
which issues and events editors and reporters choose to emphasize (or ignore)
may have more important consequences for public opinion than how these issues
and events are reported.
Often in journalism classes and news organizations, we emphasize how to report
various events and issues rather than which ones to select and emphasize.
Agenda-setting research suggests that decisions about what is more or less
newsworthy have far-reaching consequences for public opinion and policy concerns.
Thus journalists and other creators of media content should consider carefully their responsibility
to emphasize what is truly important to the public and to policy makers in any given society. By
doing so, they will come closer to fulfilling their role as watchdogs of the powerful and creators
of an informed public.
It has been said that mass communication has three broad social roles: surveillance of the larger
environment, achieving consensus among the different groups of a society, and transmission of
the culture of a society (Lasswell 1948). Although the process of agenda setting is linked most
directly to the surveillance role, it also has implications for social consensus and the transmission
Societies and governments can deal with only a fixed number of issues and problems at a given
time, so agreement is needed about which concerns are most (and least) pressing. The news
media have a crucial responsibility to help establish the priorities to be addressed, as well as help
preserve elements of a given culture. In other words, they have an important role in helping set
the public agenda.
References and suggested readings
Cohen, B. (1963). The press and foreign policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Gamson, W.A. (1992). Talking politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lang, K. & Lang, G.B. (1966). The mass media and voting. In B. Berelson & M. Janowitz (eds.),
Reader in public opinion and communication, 2nd ed. New York: Free Press, pp. 455472.
Lasswell, H. (1948). The structure and function of communication in society. In L. Bryson (ed.),
The communication ofideas. New York: Institute for Religious and Social Studies, pp.
McCombs, M. (2004). Setting the agenda: The mass media and public opinion. Cambridge, UK:
McCombs, M. E. & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function ofmass media. Public
Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176-187.
McCombs, M., Shaw, D. L., & Weaver, D. (eds.) (1997). Communication and democracy:
Exploring the intellectual frontiers in agenda-setting theory. Mahwah, New Jersey:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Son, Y.J. & Weaver, D. H. (2006). Another look at what moves public opinion: Media agenda
setting and polls in the 2000 U.S. election. International Journal of Public Opinion
Research, 18 (2),174-197.
Takeshita, T. (2006). Current critical problems in agenda-setting research. International Journal
of Public Opinion Research, 18 (3), 275-296.
Weaver, D. (1991). Issue salience and public opinion: Are there consequences of agenda setting?
International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 3, 53-68.
Weaver, D.H., McCombs, M.E., & Spellman, C. (1975). Watergate and the media: A case study
of agenda-setting. American Politics Quarterly, 3 (4),458-472.
Weaver, D., McCombs, M., & Shaw, D. L. (2004). Agenda-setting research: Issues, attributes,
and influences. In L. L. Kaid (ed.), Handbook of political communication research.
Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 257-282.
Questions for “Agenda Setting”
1. What is the agenda setting function of mass media? Use the information from the reading to
write a definition.
2. What is the relationship between what is covered in major media outlets and how people think?
In other words, what do people learn from mass media coverage?
3. What two factors related to mass media coverage contribute to the influence on the public?
4. What is the difference between media agenda setting and public agenda setting?
5. What did research on public agenda setting find?
6. Why do you think the correlation for “unobtrusive issues” seems to be “especially true”?
7. The author introduces the term ‘object’ on page 2. What does this term mean?
8. What are the constraints on describing the full nature of these objects?
9. Describe the differences between the “first level” and “second level” agenda setting.
10. What is ‘priming’ and how does it work?
11. What is the author suggesting to be addressed by editors, reporters, and journalism programs?
12. What does the author believe the role of media is?
13. What, according to the author, must the news media do going forward, and why is this
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