Agenda Setting

M. Sanchez Spring 2002

                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, which can be a newspaper, a book and television, 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” (Wilson 14). 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 bee seen or heard. Some gatekeepers might include reporters, writers, and  editors. After gatekeeping comes  agenda setting.                                                

                Agenda Setting  as  defined in “ Mass Media, Mass Culture” is the process whereby the mass media determine what we think and worry about. Walter Lippmann, a journalist first observed this function, in the 1920’s. Lippmann then pointed out that the media dominates over the creation of pictures in our head, he believed that the public reacts not to actual  events but to the pictures in our head.  Therefore the agenda setting  process is used to remodel all the events occurring in our environment,  into  a simpler model before we deal with it.  Researchers Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw have then followed this concept.           

                McCombs and Shaw as pointed out by Littlejohn have best described the agenda setting function  in their book Emergence of American Political Issues. In this book the authors point out that there is abundantly collected evidence that editors and broadcasters   play an important part  as they go through their day to day tasks  in deciding and publicizing news.                       

“ This impact of the mass media- the ability to effect cognitive change among among individuals, to structure their thinking- has been labeled the agenda-setting function of mass communication. Here may lie  the most important effect of mass communication, its ability to mentally order and organize our world for us. In short, the mass media may not be successful in telling us what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about.” (McCombs and Shaw, 5)

The common assumption of agenda- setting is that the ability of the media to influence the visibility of events in the public mind  has been apart of our culture for almost half a century. Therefore the concept of agenda setting in our society is for the press to selectively choose what we see or hear in the media.

            Agenda Setting has two levels.  As mentioned in Theories of Communication, the first level enacts the  common subjects that are most important, and the second level decides what parts of the subject are important. These two levels of agenda setting lead path into what is the function of this concept. This concept is process that is divided into three parts according to Rogers and Dearing in their book Agenda Setting Research. The first part of the process is the importance of the issues that are going to be discussed in the media. Second, the issues discussed in the media have an impact over the way the public thinks, this is referred as public agenda. Ultimately the public agenda influences the policy agenda. Furthermore “ the media agenda affects the public agenda, and the public agenda affects the policy agenda.” (Littlejohn, 320)

                Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw have brought the importance of agenda setting to our attention when they carried out the Chapel Hill study. Their emphasis and goal with this study was that the agenda issues found in the news media and among general public is what sets the media agenda. Then in 1972 David Weaver joined McCombs and Shaw in project were they panel studied the 1976 U.S. presidential election. Within this project the researchers studied the attributes of the agenda, the description of presidential candidates in the news and the agenda attributes in voters’ descriptions of the candidates (McCombs,4). Throughout this study the researchers found out that their was a relationship between the media agenda and the public agenda. These studies are for the purpose of looking at the media issues and determining whether these issues are important. Therefore the second level of agenda plays an important role in this study because it decides what parts of the issues are important in regards to the presidential election.

                Other factors that affect agenda setting these may be the combination of gatekeepers, editors and managers, and external influences. These external influences may be from nonmedia sources, government officials and influential individuals. These factors affect the agenda setting process to an extent that depending what power each factor may  have will eventually influence the media agenda. For example “f the media has close relationship with the elite society, that class will probably affect the media agenda  and the public agenda in turn” (Litlejohn,321).

                This theory of agenda setting as I have mentioned above has many useful uses in our society. First of all it  gives the media power to establish what news wee see or hear and what part of the news is important to see or hear.  This concept of  agenda setting in Littlejohn’s book is  explained as the idea of issue salience as a media effect is intriguing and important. Therefore agenda setting is used for many purposes to establish the media agenda and to retrieve the opinion of the public. Also agenda setting is very important in the political aspect because the public agenda influences the policy agenda which means that candidates will try to focus on issues that the public wants to hear about. In conclusion the agenda setting theory has many beneficial uses in our society and it is part of our communication. 


Works Cited

Littlejohn, Stephen W. Theories of Human Communication.  Seventh Edition.Albuquerque, New Mexico. Wadsworth, 2002.

McCombs, Maxwell E, and  Donald L. Shaw. The Emergence of  American Political Issues. New York. West Publishing Co,    1977.

 Wilson,James R., and Roy S.Wilson. Mass Media, Mass Culture, Fifth Edition.Boston.Mc Graw Hill, 2001.