Reading: Agenda-Setting Theory

Learning Objectives

  1. Summarize the results of the key "Chapel Hill" study of the media and public opinion
  2. Explain the relationship between the media and the executive branch

Agenda-setting theory describes the "ability [of the news media] to influence the salience of topics on the public agenda. " That is, if a news item is covered frequently, the audience will regard the issue as more important. In reality, mass media only shows the audience what it comprehends as an important issue. Print or broadcast news will then take away the audience's ability to think for themselves.

OJ Simpson

Media experts contend that the OJ Simpson case was a prime example of media agenda setting. It captivated the country—and news outlets—for years.

Agenda-setting theory was formally developed by Dr. Max McCombs and Dr. Donald Shaw in a study on the 1968 presidential election. In the 1968 "Chapel Hill study," McCombs and Shaw demonstrated a strong correlation between what one hundred residents of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, thought was the most important election issue and what the local and national news media reported was the most important issue. By comparing the salience of issues in news content with the public's perceptions of the most important election issue, McCombs and Shaw determined the degree to which the media sways public opinion.

Agenda setting is the media's ability to transfer salience issues through their new agenda. This way, the public agenda can form an understanding of the salience issues. Two basic assumptions underlie most research on agenda setting: (1) the press and the media do not reflect reality; they filter and shape it; (2) media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues.

Before they attain the presidency status, Presidents are nominees for their own party. Nominees participate in nationally televised debates, and while the debates are usually restricted to the Democratic and Republican nominees, third party candidates may be invited, such as Ross Perot in the 1992 debates. Nominees campaign across the country to explain their views, convince voters and solicit contributions. Much of the modern electoral process is concerned with winning swing states through frequent visits and mass media advertising drives.

American news media are more obsessed than ever with the horse-race aspects of the presidential campaign, according to a new study. Coverage of the political campaigns have been less reflective on the issues that matter to voters, and instead have primarily focused on campaign tactics and strategy, according to a report conducted jointly by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, part of the Pew Research Center, and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Harvard University, which examined 1,742 stories that appeared from January through May 2007 in 48 news outlets.

Mass Communication

Mass communication plays an important role in our society. Its purpose is to inform the public about current and past events. Mass communication is defined in " Mass Media, Mass Culture" as the process whereby professional communicators use technological devices to share messages over great distances to influence large audiences. Within this process, the media (a newspaper, book, television program, etc) takes control of the information we see or hear. The media then uses gatekeeping and agenda setting to "control our access to news, information, and entertainment". Gatekeeping is a series of checkpoints that the news has to go through before it gets to the public. Through this process, many people have to decide whether or not the news is to be seen or heard. Some gatekeepers include reporters, writers and editors. After gatekeeping comes agenda setting. One of the most critical aspects in the concept of an agenda-setting role of mass communication is the time frame for this phenomenon. In addition, different media have different agenda-setting potential.

The Cognitive Effects of Agenda Setting

Agenda setting occurs through a cognitive process known as "accessibility." Accessibility implies that the more frequently and prominently the news media cover an issue, the more instances that issue becomes accessible in the audience's memories. When respondents are asked about the most important problem facing the country, they answer with the most accessible news issue in memory, which is typically the issue the news media focus on the most. The agenda-setting effect is not the result of receiving one or a few messages, but is due to the aggregate impact of a very large number of messages all dealing with the same general issue. Mass-media coverage in general and agenda setting in particular also have a powerful impact on what individuals think that other people are thinking, and hence tend to allocate more importance to issues that have been extensively covered by mass media.

Key Points

  • Drs. McCombs and Shaw did a study based on the 1968 election and discovered the correlation between what news viewers watched and their perception of important events.
  • Mass communication is defined as the process whereby professional communicators use technological devices to share messages over great distances to influence large audiences.
  • The theory of accessibility states that the more the media plays a story, the more accessible that story is to the viewer's mind.


  • Agenda setting: A theory in mass-communication stating that the media have the ability to determine which issues are important to the public.

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