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One of the most frequently cited approaches to studying media effects is known as the agenda-setting effect (or function) of mass media. First tested empirically in the 1968 US presidential election by north Carolina journalism professors Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw (McCombs & Shaw 1972), 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.
Since this initial study of media agenda setting, there have been hundreds of studies carried out by scholars in many countries (McCombs 2004) on several aspects of agenda setting. Most of these 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 in various surveys, a type of research that Dearing and Rogers (1996) have called ‘public’ agenda setting, to distinguish it from studies that are concerned mainly with influences on the media agenda (‘media’ agenda setting) or on public policy agendas (‘policy’ agenda setting).
The evidence from scores of 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, especially for relatively unobtrusive issues that do not directly impact the lives of the majority of the public, such as foreign policy and government scandal. At the individual level, the evidence is not as strong (Shehata & Strömbäck 2013). In the majority of studies to date, the unit of analysis on each agenda is an object, a public issue. But objects have attributes, or characteristics. Due to the limited capacity of the news agenda, however, journalists can only present a few aspects of any object in the news. Similarly, when people talk about and think about these objects – public issues, political candidates, etc. – the attributes ascribed to these objects also vary considerably in their salience. 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 (objects). 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.
Takeshita (2006) has identified three critical problems with agenda-setting research: process, identity, and environment. The ‘process problem’ focuses on the degree to which agenda setting is automatic and unthinking; the ‘identity problem’ is concerned with whether second-level or attribute agenda setting will become indistinguishable from framing or traditional persuasion research; and the ‘environment problem’ stems from the growth in the number of news outlets, and whether that will reduce and fragment the agenda-setting effect of media at the societal level.
Takeshita suggests that future research on agenda setting should focus on the factors that distinguish genuine or deliberative agenda setting from ‘pseudo agenda setting’ that is automatic and unthinking. He also suggests focusing on how the salience of certain attributes of a given object (be it an issue or a candidate) leads to the development of attitudes toward that object. In addition, it seems clear that more research is needed to clarify the similarities and differences between second-level agenda setting and framing, to specify the conditions under which media agendas are likely to influence not only public but also policymakers’ agendas (Tan & Weaver 2010), and to study the influences on the media agenda.
- Dearing, J. W. & Rogers, E. M. (1996). Agenda-setting. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- McCombs, M. (2004). Setting the agenda: The mass media and public opinion. Cambridge: Polity. (2nd edn in press.)
- McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176–187.
- Shehata, A. & Strömbäck, J. (2013). Not (yet) a new era of minimal effects: A study of agenda setting at the aggregate and individual levels. Harvard International Journal of Press / Politics, 18(2), 234–255.
- Takeshita, T. (2006). Current critical problems in agenda-setting research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 18(3), 275–296.
- Tan, Y. & Weaver, D. H. (2010). Media bias, public opinion, and policy liberalism from 1956 to 2004: A second-level agenda-setting study. Mass Communication and Society, 13(4), 412–434.