Why do some news items generate a buzz, and others pass by with barely a peep? For example, the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has commanded attention, while 11,420 dead Syrian children did not.
Communications theorists point their fingers at the influence of the media in shaping what we care about. A social theory called “agenda setting theory” posits that the media shapes our interests and tells us what is and is not important.
Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw: Agenda Setting Theory
In the early 1970s, Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw stated that people who experienced the same media coverage would come to believe the same events were important. The amount of coverage given to a particular topic influenced how important people came to believe the topic was.
Since the original article was written, researchers have applied this theory to topics as diverse as the media’s presentation of gender, to tobacco campaigns, to coverage of political beliefs in Chile. The media – television, newspapers, and radio – were found to set the agenda, or determine the topics worthy of discussion.
By 2004, McCombs wrote that it was “common” to discuss media setting the agenda for national debate. In Setting the Agenda: The Mass Media and Public Opinion McCombs stated, “there are now over 400 empirical investigations worldwide” of agenda setting.
Level Two of Agenda Setting Theory
Initial research on agenda setting focused on what the media presented to the public. The second level of agenda setting theory emerged in the 1990s and focused on “how media coverage affects both what the public thinks about and how the public thinks about it” according to Salma Ghanen, Dean, College of Communication and Fine Arts at Central Michigan University in her chapter titled “Filling in the Tapestry: The Second Level of Agenda Setting” in McCombs updated volume on communications and democracy.
Ghanen notes that the way the topic or “object” is covered influences how people interpret the news item, or the “frame” in which the public sees the news item. The tone that is set is referred to as salience. Does the media present the topic in a positive, negative, or neutral light? As Ghanen writes, framing “deals with the idea that the news media may be presenting a world-view construed in a particular way that does not necessarily mesh with reality.”
While the mystery surely is part of the lure of the jetliner story, the public may want to ask themselves whether the possible deaths of a few hundred jet passengers are more important than the certain deaths of more than 11,000 children.
Level Three of Agenda Setting Theory: Networks
While the first two levels of agenda setting theory focus on the impact of the media in choosing the topics of discussion and then directing the topic through the tone or salience of media coverage. The third level of agenda setting theory focuses on particular attributes of the media message.
Lei Gau in his chapter “Toward a Third-Level of Agenda-Setting Theory: A Network Agenda Setting Model” in the book Agenda Setting in a 2.0 World: New Agendas in Communication, looks at how attributes connect as a media story unfolds, such as in a political race for office. Does trustworthiness trend alongside leadership, for instance?
Implications of Agenda Setting Theory
As continued research is conducted into agenda setting, what topics the media presents, how it presents them, and what attributes are connected as the story evolves, more light will be shed on how we are led to pay attention to different news topics, and on how we are led to conclusions about these topics.
Agenda setting theory has made its mark. Today, complaints of media bias are indeed common place. A savvy consumer of news items will be wary. Checking news items against our own value systems allows us to see through the agendas of others.