A presentation by: Dheeraj Kumar, PhD Research Scholar, Department of Electronic Media & Mass Communication, Pondicherry University
The idea of the agenda-setting role of media has its roots in an old book, Public Opinion Written by Walter Lippmann (1922).
The author titled his first chapter as “The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads.”
Lippmann was the person who argued that the mass media make our pictures of the world and inform us about the world events. However, he anticipated that the pictures provided by the media were most of the time incomplete and distorted. People can see only reflections of reality (not reality itself) in the news media. However, those reflections provide the basis for our perceptions about the world.
The notion that the news media influence the “pictures in our heads” was put to an empirical test in 1972.
During the 1968 presidential election of the USA, McCombs and Shaw conducted the first test of Lippmann’s theory in Chapel Hill, NC. At that time,
the existing theory was that the mass media had only limited effects on the public. Earlier studies conducted by some scholars stated that exposure to campaign information had little influence on the public’s voting behaviors.
McCombs & Donald Shaw thought:
whether the topics selected by the news media to represent the world outside limited the kinds of events that people used to interpret the world.
whether the public’s perception of reality depended on the topics highlighted by the news media or not
They argued that the
“ Mass media have the ability to transfer the salience of items on their news agendas to the public agenda .”
as they put it :
“ We judge as important what the media judge as important.”
It was a tremendous beginning of a new mass communications theory, which can be divided into two aspects.
The first aspect relates with the transmission of issue or object salience from the media agenda to the public agenda.
The second aspect relates with the role of news media in framing those issues and things in the minds of masses.
McCombs and Shaw (1972) tested the notion that the mass media influence public perception about the important issues of the day through their daily selection and display of the news in their news bulletin etc.
they believed that with the passage of time the priority issues of the news media organizations would become the priority issues of the public. The media audience can easily feel the priorities of the news agenda.
the size of the headlines
the length of the news story
the page placement
story appears indicate the prominence of the news story.
In television broadcasts
the position of an item in the newscast
the length of the story determine its importance.
These signals help the audience in making their priorities among a small number of issues selected for attention in the daily news broadcasts and outlets.
Use of a closed ended question
Respondents were asked to rank a series of issues
This provides a more detailed picture of the public agenda. This practice can provide a comparison of agenda on a variety of issues’ importance.
The researchers compared responses of their open-ended survey questions with a content analysis of the nine major news sources used by the voters of that particular area. Television, radio, newspapers, and news magazines were included in the sources.
The public agenda of the issues of the study was rank-ordered according to the number of voters naming an issue.
These five issues were rank-ordered on the news agenda according to the percentage of news coverage on the issues falling into each category.
There was a strong and significant relationship between the public’s and the media’s agenda about the issues.
This transfer of salience from the media agenda to the public agenda was called as the agenda-setting role of mass communication.
The basic purpose of the McCombs and Shaw’s study was to investigate a link between the content of the news agenda and the public agenda.
Secondly, McCombs and Shaw wanted to examine effects on people that resulted from some specific content of the media messages.
This theory has a scientific approach
This theory has an explanatory power because it explains why people prioritize certain issues.
It’s predictive power is also recognized because it predicts the priorities of the media audience according to the news media content.
The Acapulco Typology
The first type of this typology compares the news coverage for a set of major issues to the aggregate public agenda.
The second type also examines the media agenda (defined in terms of a set of
issues), but shifts the units of analysis for the public agenda from the aggregate
population to the individual.
The third type determines the relationship between the media coverage of a single issue and the public opinion about this issue over a period of time.
Type four investigates the relationship between the media coverage of a single
issue and the salience of that issue on an individual agenda.
Individual Media Workers’ influence on Media Content
Influence of Media Routines
Organizational Influences on Media Content
Influences from Outside Media Organizations
Influence of Ideology on Media Content
Revised version of the theory
“ Media tell us how and what to think about it”
By calling attention to some matters while ignoring others, news media influences the standards by which governments, presidents, policies, and candidates in the election campaigns are judged. People depend upon the mass media for information about the world events.
How is the agenda-setting role of the mainstream media affected in the digital age ?
Meraz (2009) argues that while mainstream media organizations are no longer the sole agenda-setters, they remain dominant in terms of setting blog agendas.
By the mid-1990s, agenda-setting theory evolved and scholars began to argue that the media do influence the way we think as a result of a specific process known as framing.
What is framing ?
According to James Tankard, a media frame is
“ The central organizing idea for news content that supplies a context and suggests what the issue is through a use of selection, emphasis, exclusion and elaboration.”
"News frames are almost entirely implicit and taken for granted. They do not appear to either journalists or audiences as social constructions but as primary attributes of events that reporters are merely reflecting.
News frames make the world look natural. They determine what is selected, what is excluded, what is emphasized. In short, news presents a packaged world."
Freedom v. Terror (overall package)
Core frame—Issue is will we allow evil to prevail and destroy civilization and rule the world
Humanitarian Intervention (overall package)
Core frame—Issue is will the U.S. help the people of Afghanistan
Quagmire (overall package)
Core frame—Issue is will we get stuck in another expensive war ?