Last Updated 27 Jul 2020

Agenda Setting Theory. Summary

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Agenda Setting Theory I. The original agenda: not what to think, but what to think about. A. Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw regard Watergate (American political scandal – 1970’s. It ended in President Nixon resigning from office) as a perfect example of the agenda-setting function of the mass media. B. They believe that the mass media have the ability to transfer the salience (importance) of items on their news agendas to the public agenda. II. A theory whose time had come. A. Agenda-setting theory contrasted with the prevailing selective exposure hypothesis, reaffirming the power of the press while maintaining individual freedom.

Agenda-setting theory set to prove that we don’t have as much control over our beliefs as we would like to think. (selective exposure: says people know what they are interested in, and what they believe/find important. They choose to expose themselves to media sources that provide them with information that matches their interests and confirms their existing beliefs) B. The hypothesis predicts a cause-and-effect relationship between media content and voter perception, particularly a match between the media’s agenda and the public’s agenda later on. causal relationships are different than correlational relationships – note how the findings change between studies). III. Media agenda and public agenda: a close match. A. In their groundbreaking study, McCombs and Shaw first measured the media agenda. B. They established the position and length of story as the primary criteria of prominence (i. e. where it was in paper – front page – and how long of an article it was – more writing equals more important (discourse makes meaning)) C. The remaining stories were divided into five major issues and ranked in order of importance. D.

Rankings provided by uncommitted voters (uncommitted = undecided; these are people who have not made up their minds yet) matched closely with the media’s agenda. IV. What causes what? A. McCombs and Shaw believe that the hypothesized agenda-setting function of the media causes the correlation between the media and public ordering of priorities. B. However, correlation does not prove causation. 1. A true test of the agenda-setting function must show that public priorities lag behind the media agenda. (this would prove that one comes before another and is the cause of the other) 2.

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McCombs and three other researchers demonstrated a time lag between media coverage and the public agenda during the 1976 presidential campaign. C. To examine whether the media agenda and the public agenda might just reflect current events (reality), Ray Funkhouser documented a situation in which there was a strong relationship between media and public agendas. The twin agendas did not merely mirror reality, but Funkhouser failed to establish a chain of influence from the media to the public. (this was the Vietnam War example) D.

Shanto Iyengar, Mark Peters, and Donald Kinder’s experimental study confirmed a cause-and-effect relationship between the media’s agenda and the public’s agenda. V. Who sets the agenda for the agenda setters? A. Some scholars target major news editors or “gatekeepers. ” B. Others point to politicians and their spin-doctors. C. Current thinking focuses on public relations professionals. D. “Interest aggregations” are becoming extremely important. VI. Who is most affected by the media agenda? A. Those susceptible have a high need for orientation or index of curiosity. B.

Need for orientation arises from high relevance and uncertainty. VII. Framing: transferring the salience of attributes. A. Throughout the last decade, McCombs has emphasized that the media influence the way we think. B. This process is called framing. 1. A media frame is 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. 2. This definition suggests that media not only set an agenda but also transfer the salience of specific attributes to issues, events, or candidates. C. There are two levels of agenda setting. . The transfer of salience of an attitude object in the mass media’s pictures of the world to a prominent place among the pictures in our heads. (what to think about) 2. The transfer of salience of a bundle of attributes the media associate with an attitude object to the specific features of the image in our minds. (how to think about it) VIII. Not just what to think about, but how to think about it. A. Two national election studies suggest that framing works by altering pictures in the minds of people and, through the construction of an agenda with a cluster of related attributes, creating a coherent image.

B. Salma Ghanem’s study of Texans tracked the second level of agenda setting and suggested that attribute frames have a compelling effect on the public. C. Framing is inevitable. D. McCombs and Shaw now contend that the media may not only tell us what to think about, they also may tell us who and what to think about it, and perhaps even what to do about it. IX. Beyond opinion: the behavioral effect of the media’s agenda. A. Some findings suggest that media priorities affect people’s behavior. B. Nowhere is the behavioral effect of the media agenda more apparent than in the business of professional sports. C.

McCombs claims “Agenda setting the theory can also be agenda setting the business plan. ” D. Will new media continue to guide focus, opinions, and behavior? 1. The power of agenda setting that McCombs and Shaw describe may be on the wane. 2. The media may not have as much power to transfer the salience of issues or attributes as it does now as a result of users’ expanded content choices and control over exposure. X. Critique: are the effects too limited, the scope too wide? A. McCombs has considered agenda setting a theory of limited media effects. B. Framing reopens the possibility of a powerful effects model.

C. Gerald Kosicki questions whether framing is relevant to agenda-setting research. 1. McCombs’ restricted definition of framing doesn’t address the mood of emotional connotations of a media story or presentational factors. 2. Although it has a straightforward definition within agenda-setting theory, the popularity of framing as a construct in media studies has led to diverse and perhaps contradictory uses of the term. D. Agenda-setting research shows that print and broadcast news prioritize issues. E. Agenda-setting theory reminds us that the news is stories that require interpretation.

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