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Agenda Setting and Journalism

Summary and Keywords

People use the news media to learn about the world beyond their family, neighborhood, and workplace. As news consumers, we depend on what television, social media, websites, radio stations, and newspapers decide to inform us about. This is because all news media, whether through journalists or digital algorithms, select, process, and filter information to their users. Over time, the aspects that are prominent in the news media usually become prominent in public opinion. The ability of journalists to influence which issues, aspects of these issues, and persons related to these issues, are perceived as the most salient has come to be called the agenda-setting effect of journalism.

First described by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in a seminal study conducted during the 1968 elections in the United States, agenda-setting theory has expanded to include several other aspects beyond the transfer of salience of issues from the media agenda to the public agenda. These aspects include: the influence of journalism on the attributes of issues and people that make news; the networks between the different elements in the media and public agendas; the determinants of the news media agenda; the psychological mechanisms that regulate agenda-setting effects; and the consequences of agenda setting on both citizens’ and policymakers’ attitudes and behaviors. As one of the most comprehensive and international theories of journalism studies available, agenda setting continues to evolve in the expanding digital media landscape.

Keywords: agenda setting, intermedia agenda setting, attribute agenda setting, framing, network agenda setting, agenda building, information subsidies, priming, need for orientation, journalism studies

Overview of Agenda Setting

The agenda-setting function of the news media is one the most studied theories of the effects of journalism on society. Since McCombs and Shaw (1972), more than 500 separate scientific works on agenda setting have accumulated, spanning all six continents and including political and nonpolitical settings (Kim, Kim, & Zhou, 2017). Some authors even speak of the “agenda setting juggernaut” (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008, p. 708) to highlight the popularity of the agenda-setting concept when studying the influence of journalists and the news they produce. As of May 2019, the original article on agenda setting (McCombs & Shaw, 1972) alone has over 11,000 citations in Google Scholar. And it may well be the only theory in journalism studies to have a scholarly journal entirely devoted to it, The Agenda Setting Journal.

The popularity of agenda setting stems from a theoretical, methodological, and practical background. When first proposed, it ran counter to the prevailing paradigm among communication scholars that the mass media had limited effects to change people’s perceptions and attitudes. A typical example of the time was the assessment of Joseph Klapper (1960), who led the social research office of the American broadcast network CBS: “Mass communication ordinarily does not serve as a necessary and sufficient cause of audience effects, but rather functions among and through a nexus of mediating functions and influences” (p. 8). Agenda setting, on the contrary, argued that the news media can have strong, direct effects in the short term by influencing not what people think, but what they think about. Furthermore, despite reams of published research, the basic idea of the theory has remained straightforward: agenda setting refers to the process by which the aspects (e.g., issues, public figures, companies, or government institutions) that are deemed relevant by the news media as well as the attributes used to describe these elements often become relevant to public opinion, too.

In terms of methods, agenda-setting research usually involves the combination of two quantitative procedures: a systematic content analysis of media content, and public opinion surveys. The use of multi-methods is nowadays a rather common approach within journalism studies. In the early 1970s, however, it was revolutionary. At the time, content analysis was the preferred method for studying messages, whereas surveys were the main method for audience research. Agenda setting innovated by combining the two at its core. Over time, the methodological repertoire has expanded to include experiments, both within the lab and outside in the field, longitudinal designs, and, more recently, social network analyses and computational methods.

In addition to theoretical and methodological innovations, agenda-setting research instilled several lessons in journalism practitioners. First, it demonstrated that the news media matters; that is, journalism has a powerful influence in society. It also showed that this influence is not necessarily a consequence of elite manipulation or detrimental to democratic citizenship. Rather, the process of agenda setting from the media to the public results from a complex process of negotiation of agendas between political elites, journalists, and news users. In fact, as we shall discuss, agenda setting incorporated at its core the idea that just as news sources do not always succeed at influencing the agenda of journalists, the news media do not always succeed at influencing the agenda of public opinion. Last, the theory gives empirical justification to calls for professional ethics and standards within newsrooms. It is not so much that journalists cover what people deem relevant or interesting, but that people deem relevant or interesting what journalists and news organizations decide to cover in the first place. Hence, news professionals need to be aware that the issues and events they decide to report on can create public opinion.

Since the initial 1968 study, the theory has developed into several domains. In all of these domains, three concepts are central: objects, attributes, and transfer of salience. Objects refer to psychological elements or things that an individual has a perception or attitude about. An object may well be an issue, a public figure, a company, or an institution. Both media and public agendas are rankings of these abstract objects, defined by how prominent or salient they are. Attributes, in turn, refer to the specific characteristics used by journalists and news users to describe an object. Again, some attributes are more relevant to an object than other attributes, because they are emphasized more in news stories and in people’s minds. The transfer of salience means the process by which the rankings of prominence of objects or attributes influence each other. In the typical agenda-setting study, there is a transfer of salience from the media agenda to the public agenda. Other studies focus on the transfer of salience from the political agenda to the media agenda, or between media agendas. The rich history of agenda-setting research can be organized into six domains, which cover a wide span of topics within journalism studies:

  1. 1. Basic agenda setting: the transfer of salience of objects (e.g., issues, public figures, sources in the news, and so forth) from the news media agenda to the public agenda. This is where the theory started and remains the most well-known aspect of the theory.

  2. 2. Attribute agenda setting: the transfer of salience of attributes of these objects from the media agenda to the public agenda. It became popular in the 1990s, with studies focusing on the attributes of political candidates, and converged—not without academic controversy—with framing studies.

  3. 3. Network agenda setting: the transfer of the network connecting the salience of objects and their attributes from the media to the public. It is the most recent area of theory and methodological development in agenda-setting research.

  4. 4. Origins of the news media agenda: studies that seek to explain how journalists and news organizations decide which issues and attributes to cover. This area converges with research on the sociology of news and political agenda setting (i.e., the influence of the media agenda on policymaking).

  5. 5. Psychological determinants of agenda-setting effects: the exploration of individual-level variables that regulate the strength of agenda-setting effects, such as need for orientation. This aspect of the theory has connected agenda setting to other communication theories in the social-psychological tradition, including selective exposure and third-person effects.

  6. 6. Consequences of agenda setting on attitudes and behaviors: although agenda-setting theory’s chief concern is with what people learn from the news, researchers have also explored the consequences of the news on what people think (e.g., attitudes, preferences) and do (e.g., voting, consumer behavior).

The six areas of agenda-setting research have garnered attention not only from journalism scholars, but also from researchers in political communication, media psychology, and technology. Consequently, work on an agenda-setting framework is rather diverse, both in terms of applications and settings. McCombs (2014) has noted that the development of the theory has followed two approaches. There is a centrifugal trend, as when scholars seek to expand the theory’s application beyond the original focus on news and public affairs, and a centripetal trend, as when scholars revisit and further explicate agenda setting’s core concepts. Within journalism studies, however, interest in agenda setting has mostly followed a centripetal force. In what follows, each of the six research areas will be reviewed, while the closing section will detail some important gaps that future studies may find it useful to tackle.

Basic Agenda Setting

According to McCombs (2014), the idea of an agenda-setting role of the news media has its origins in Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922), specifically the first chapter, entitled “The world outside and the pictures in our heads” (p. 25). Lippmann, a renowned American journalist, argued that the news media determine people’s mental images of the larger world of politics and public affairs, which most citizens never directly experience. These mental images may be incomplete and distorted. Nevertheless, most people regard them as accurate reflections of the real world.

After Lippmann, many other authors in the social sciences alluded to the idea that the news media influence what people deem to be the relevant issues of the day, including Park (1925), Lazarsfeld and Merton (1952), and Cohen (1963). However, the first empirical test of the idea that the news media constitute the bridge between the “world outside and the pictures in our heads” was conducted by McCombs and Shaw in 1968 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (at the time, both authors worked there as university professors). Specifically, they used that year’s US presidential election to examine whether the issues emphasized by news coverage were also the issues emphasized by voters when thinking about the campaign. The dependent variable in the Chapel Hill study was the public agenda of issues, and the independent variable was the media agenda of issues. By agenda, the study meant the rank order of the issues, rather than the more critical definition of agenda as a premeditated list of goals. To measure the public agenda, McCombs and Shaw conducted a survey among a sample of 100 undecided voters, who—compared to committed voters—were more likely to follow the news to decide their vote and, thus, manifest agenda-setting effects. Respondents were asked the following question: “What are you most concerned about these days? That is, regardless of what politicians say, what are the two or three main things which you think the government should concentrate on doing something about?” (1972, p. 178). Voters identified five major issues of concern: foreign policy, law and order, fiscal policy, public welfare, and civil rights. By ranking these issues in terms of the percentage of respondents naming each of them, a succinct summary of the public agenda was computed.

The news media agenda, in turn, was measured with a systematic content analysis of the same five issues in nine major news sources used by Chapel Hill residents, including broadcast television, newspapers, and magazines. For each of the named issues, McCombs and Shaw counted the number of news stories published in the month up to when the survey was fielded. Just as with the public agenda, the list of issues was rank-ordered according to the percentage of coverage falling into each category. To measure the strength of association between the two sets of rankings, the researchers computed the Spearman’s rho statistic, which varies from -1 (a perfect negative rank-order correlation) to +1 (a perfect positive correlation), with 0 indicating no correlation. The study yielded a nearly perfect correspondence of +.97, which meant that the degree of importance accorded the five issues by voters closely paralleled their degree of prominence in the news during the previous month.

At the time, McCombs and Shaw (1972) interpreted this result as consistent with the hypothesis that the issues covered by the news media oftentimes become the important issues for public opinion; that is, that there is a transfer of salience from the media agenda to the public agenda. However, as any student of research methods will attest, correlation does not necessarily equal causation. In addition to correlation, it is also important to establish a time ordering of the variables. Was the Chapel Hill result a consequence of news setting the public agenda of issues, as contended by McCombs and Shaw? Or did the public set the news agenda, as suggested by the market-oriented maxim that media companies must “give the people what they want”?

To better address the causality quandary, a more robust research design was necessary. Thus, McCombs and his associates studied the next two US presidential elections using a multi-wave panel design, in which the same sample of respondents was regularly interviewed over a period to track changes in responses. During the summer and fall of 1972, three waves of interviewing measured the public agenda among a representative sample of voters in Charlotte, North Carolina. In what became known as the Charlotte study, Shaw and McCombs (1977) found stronger evidence for the agenda-setting hypothesis than for the rival hypothesis that the public agenda influences the media agenda. An even more conservative design was applied during the 1976 US presidential election. This time, respondents were interviewed nine times between February and December in three different locations: New Hampshire, Indiana, and Illinois. Simultaneously, the election coverage of the three national television networks and the local newspapers was content analyzed. In all three settings, the researchers found that the influence of both television and newspapers was greatest during the spring primaries, when voters were just beginning to tune in to the presidential campaign (Weaver, Graber, McCombs, & Eyal, 1981). The correlation between the national television agenda and the subsequent voter agenda in this period was a strong +.63, while the correlation between the agendas of the three newspapers read by these voters and their agenda of public issues was a moderate +.34. In stark contrast, the correlation between the public agenda and the subsequent television agenda—the rival hypothesis—was only +.22, and for the newspapers this rival correlation was even lower, -.08.

The discovery of evidence for a correlation and time order of the public and media issues agendas, however, does not rule out the possibility that another variable is responsible for the relationship between the two agendas, even over time. Perhaps journalists and audience members are affected by governments, or real-world events independently of each other. After all, even the original agenda setters, McCombs and colleagues, saw the media as a conduit by which real-world problems can be addressed by policymakers and audiences. From a methodological perspective, experimental evidence about the agenda-setting function of the news media was missing—a shortcoming, considering that it is only through experiments that causes and effects can be correctly identified.

To address the possibility of a spurious correlation between media and public agendas, Iyengar and Kinder (1987) conducted a series of 14 experimental studies in New Haven, Connecticut. Their basic procedure was to show participants different versions of videotaped newscasts emphasizing particular issues through additional coverage, such as unemployment, defense, or energy. In study after study, the authors found evidence that subjects who were shown the manipulated television newscasts were more likely to mention the issue with most prominent coverage as the country’s most important problem.

Perhaps the strongest evidence to date on the influence of the news media on focusing people’s attention on a small set of issues comes from a large-scale innovative field experiment conducted by King, Schneer, and White (2017). The team recruited 48 media organizations in the United States, most of them small, to randomly publish real news stories on 11 different policy issues, including race, immigration, jobs, abortion, climate, and education. After each set of stories were published, the researchers tracked over the course of a week the websites’ page views and the discussion on Twitter regarding the issues covered in the experiment. The results were impressive. For instance, the authors found that the experiment increased subsequent Twitter discussion in each broad policy area by 63%, accounting for 13,166 additional posts over the treatment week, with similar effects across population subgroups. Unlike most studies on agenda setting, this study did not measure the public agenda based on self-reports; rather, it measured people’s behaviors on social media as evidence of issue importance. Thus, it set a stringent test for agenda-setting effects. The fact that the effects uncovered were substantive led a commenter to note that this was “one of the most rigorous and convincing data points to date on the agenda-setting power of media” (Gentzkow, 2017, p. 727).

Taken together, the basic agenda-setting hypothesis has been widely documented across the world. The latest meta-analysis—a technique that pools in a statistically meaningful way the results of separate studies—found an average correlation of +.49 between the media and public agendas (Luo, Burley, Moe, & Sui, 2019). To put this number in perspective, consider that the mean effect estimate for human communication phenomena is +.21 (Rains, Levine, & Weber, 2018). Considering the robust evidence, it is not surprising that to date many scholars within and outside journalism studies equate agenda-setting theory with the media’s role in setting the issue priorities of the public.

Attribute Agenda Setting

News coverage is much more than issues. As Kosicki (1993) observed in his early critique, basic agenda-setting research “strips away almost everything worth knowing about how the media cover an issue and leaves only the shell of the topic” (p. 112). Known as the “Kosicki curse” (Maher, 2001, p. 90), the critique was warranted; at the time, most research in the agenda-setting paradigm took issues as broad, abstract topic domains, whereas news coverage of those topics tends to be controversial, with multiple interpretations, and with unique characteristics.

In response to these limitations, in the 1990s McCombs and colleagues embarked on a new research program, in what is now known as attribute agenda setting. The idea was to demonstrate that the effects of journalism are not limited to focusing people’s attention on a particular set of issues, but also to influencing people’s interpretations on those same topics. To do so, McCombs, López-Escobar, and Llamas (2000) found it convenient to define the concept of agenda in abstract terms. Issues in the news now became psychological “objects.” Each of these objects, in turn, has various specific “attributes,” or characteristics that describe the object. When these objects are covered, some qualities are more emphasized than others. Consequently, just as objects vary in salience in media content, so do the attributes of each object; that is, for each object there is an agenda of attributes describing how journalists cover an issue, public figure, social movement, or company in the news. For instance, by focusing attention on the candidates with the higher probability of winning the election, the media signal the prominence of the candidates on voters (basic agenda setting). At the same time, the media can cover these candidates by highlighting their competence, charisma, or honesty (or lack thereof), and can thus set the agenda of candidates’ attributes for voters as well.

The first comprehensive study on attribute agenda setting developed during the 1996 general elections in Spain. As usual in agenda-setting research, a content analysis of news coverage was compared with voters’ survey responses. This time, however, McCombs and his co-authors (2000) compared the way voters in Pamplona described the three major party leaders with the way seven major news sources used by these voters described the candidates. Specifically, two sets of attributes were compared. Substantive attributes referred to the leaders’ issue stances, biographical information, perceived qualifications, personality, and integrity. Affective attributes, in turn, were the positive, negative, or neutral tone used when the substantive attributes were mentioned by news organizations and survey participants. In similar fashion to basic agenda-setting studies, the media agenda was measured with a quantitative content analysis, while the public agenda was construed from the following open-ended question: “Imagine that you have a friend who didn’t know anything about the candidates. What would you tell your friend about [each candidate]?” Responses were then coded to ascertain which substantive and affective attributes voters mentioned. Across media outlets and party leaders, the median correlation between the public and media agendas of attributes was +.72—a rather strong relationship.

As with basic agenda-setting research, subsequent studies adopted more stringent research designs to demonstrate the causal-effect nature of the media’s attribute agenda-setting function. Particularly prominent are studies on news coverage of the economy and how the specific aspects highlighted by journalists influence people’s perceptions about the state of that economy. Because data on real-world economic trends is abundant, scholars have the ability to isolate the unique contribution of economic journalism on public opinion in a way that is simply not possible with other issues. Hester and Gibson (2003), for instance, analyzed print and broadcast coverage of the economy in the United States for four consecutive years, and contrasted it with the evolution of two indicators of consumer confidence and three variables of real economic conditions. Not surprisingly, the authors found that journalists more frequently highlighted negative attributes of the economy than positive ones. More importantly, the results of time-series analyses showed that the volume of negative news coverage was a significant predictor of people’s expectations about the future of the economy. A more complete treatment of this literature is available in an excellent review by Damstra, Boukes, and Vliegenthart (2018).

For some researchers in the agenda-setting tradition, attributes converge with news frames, in that specific attributes represent frames or angles used by sources, journalists, and the public to define an issue (Entman, 1993). In fact, many studies use attribute agenda setting and framing as interchangeable concepts. For instance, in an innovative work examining the nonverbal, affective attributes of US presidential candidates in television news, Coleman and Banning (2006) found that the candidate with the most favorable coverage garnered more favorable attitudes among voters. Their conclusion was that “it is likely that affective framing occurs through the visual mode of communication” (p. 315). Nevertheless, the title and theoretical framework of this study alluded to the second level of agenda-setting effects. The attempt of subsuming framing under the umbrella of agenda setting, however, remains unsettled. Some researchers posit that attributes refer to explicit, discrete aspects that are salient in a news story, whereas frames refer to implicit, organizing structures of how to interpret or make sense of a news story (Reese, 2007). Other authors point out methodological differences. Whereas attribute agenda setting is dependent upon the frequency with which the different attributes are mentioned in a news story, in framing, a single word, metaphor, or visual cue may represent the latent frame of the story.

Basic and attribute agenda-setting effects demonstrated how the salience of different objects and their respective descriptions transferred from the media to the public agenda. A natural question that followed was that of establishing the connection between the two phenomena. This was achieved, initially, through the concept of compelling arguments. Often, objects in the media agenda become more salient in people’s minds when one or a few specific attributes are highlighted by news coverage. That is, basic agenda-setting effects can emerge as a consequence of attribute agenda-setting effects. Evidence for the compelling arguments hypothesis comes from several areas of research. It has been found that only when specific crimes are reported in the news (e.g., homicides, robberies) does the issue of crime becomes one of public concern (Browne & Valenzuela, 2018). Thus, the specific attributes of crime act as compelling arguments that increase the salience of the crime issue (Ghanem, 1997).

Interestingly, the compelling arguments hypothesis can also help to explain cases in which the news fails at setting the public agenda. If the media focus their attention on an aspect of an issue that is not particularly relevant for audience members, then no matter the volume of news coverage, the issue will not become more salient in the public agenda. Much was written about the so-called “collapse” (Williams & Delli Carpini, 2004, p. 1208) of agenda setting when referencing the 1998 affair of US president Bill Clinton with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Despite ample news coverage of the affair—described as “all Monica, all the time”—the approval rates of Clinton barely moved. In separate studies, Kiousis (2003) and Yioutas and Segvic (2003) found that the media’s decision to focus on the private aspects of the issue (e.g., adultery) was not regarded by most survey respondents as a relevant attribute for the object under evaluation, namely, the way Clinton was handling the government. In this case, the attributes used by the media were not compelling arguments for most American voters.

Network Agenda Setting

Network agenda setting provides another theoretical link connecting agenda-setting effects of objects and attributes. As a further response to the critique that the theory studies the media and public agendas in discrete fashion, by disaggregating topics from the larger news context, in 2010 McCombs and colleagues began studying how objects and attributes are bundled together in news stories. The proposition is that there is a transfer of salience from the media to the public of the associative networks connecting objects to their attributes.

In the initial exploration regarding whether bundles of elements in the media become salient in the public’s mind, Guo and McCombs (2011) reanalyzed data that documented strong attribute agenda-setting effects based on a traditional analysis of discrete sets of political candidates’ attributes. In the original study of candidate images (Kim & McCombs, 2007), the overall correspondence between the media attribute agenda and the public attribute agenda was +.65. Using network analysis to analyze the pattern of bundled attributes on the media agenda and the public agenda, the correlation was +.67. Subsequently, Vu, Guo, and McCombs (2014) examined network issue agendas across a five-year period (2007–2011), comparing the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s (PEJ) weekly content analysis of the most covered topics in the United States (the media network issue agenda) with monthly Gallup polls asking what is the most important problem facing the country (the public network issue agenda). Correlations between the media and the public network agendas across the five years ranged from +.65 to +.87. Additional cross-lagged correlation analysis established that in most cases the media network issue agenda influenced the public network issue agenda.

According to the proponents of agenda setting, this development represents a third level of effects (with agenda setting of objects and attributes being the first and second levels, respectively). A major driver of studies on using social network analysis for agenda setting has been to make the theory compatible with long-standing models of human cognition. Neuroscientists and psychologists have long theorized that memory is organized into networks of related items, associated by their meaning, similarity, time sequence, or other organizing cognitive principle (for a review, see Levine, 1983). In a network model of agenda setting, the way the media organizes different attributes of an object by connecting some aspects more frequently than others is found to influence individuals’ cognitive representations of those same objects and attributes. Nevertheless, a rank order of attributes may well be an indirect way of assessing those attributes’ network centrality, which would explain the high degree of convergence between the traditional way of measuring the agendas of attributes with the network model reported by Guo and McCombs (2011).

Agenda-setting studies using network analysis have reinvigorated the theory’s application to the current media environment. For many years, agenda setting was thought to be dependent upon the fate of traditional news media. Many observers argued that as the homogeneous agendas of television, radio, and newspapers were replaced by the heterogeneous agendas of digital media, the possibility for agenda-setting effects diminished. However, network agenda-setting studies have incorporated data from Twitter, partisan websites, and other nontraditional media sources, finding strong evidence for the transfer of salience from one set of agendas to another (Vargo & Guo, 2017). Furthermore, the network approach has triggered a new round of cross-national research on agenda setting (see Guo & McCombs, 2016), which has been a limitation for other theories in journalism studies.

What Shapes the News Media Agenda?

Demonstrating that news coverage can have a causal-effect relationship with public opinion was the initial driver of agenda setting. Studying how and under what conditions these effects occur, however, has received considerable scholarly attention as well. At the macro level, the homogeneity of the news media agenda has been a major source of journalism’s influence on the audience, because it makes it easier for the public to learn about issues and other topics in the news with little deliberate effort on their part.

Homogeneity in the media agenda results, in part, from journalists’ tendency to validate their sense of news by observing the work of their colleagues, especially the work of elite members of the media, such as the New York Times, the BBC, and Twitter. The outcome of these continuous observations is a highly redundant news agenda. The original Chapel Hill study found a median correlation of +.78 between the major issue agendas of the nine traditional media analyzed. Forty years later, an analysis of campaign coverage of the 2008 US elections collected by the PEJ found similar strong correlations. For example, McCombs and Shaw (1972) found that the campaign issue agendas of the New York Times, CBS News and NBC News exhibited a rank-order median correlation of +.66. Using the 2008 PEJ data, which coded 15 broad story topics, the correlation was +.68.

Due to the ease with which different media organizations can now check the issues covered by their competitors, the rise of digital media has increased the redundancy in news media agendas. This process of “imitation in an age of information abundance” (Boczkowski, 2010) has resulted in fairly homogeneous national media agendas. Going back to the 2008 PEJ data, the median correlation between the agendas of the news websites CNN.com, Yahoo! News, MSNBC.com, Google News, and AOL News increased from an average of +.21 in the mornings (9 a.m.) to +.51 in the evenings (4 p.m.) That is, convergence in terms of which are the most important issues of the day increases as digital journalists and editors catch up with their colleagues’ work during the day. Importantly, the high degree of consistency in the media agenda is a worldwide phenomenon, studied under the concept of intermedia agenda setting. A study in Chile conducted between 2000 and 2005 found a median correlation in the issue agendas of TV news and newspapers of +.83 (Valenzuela & Arriagada, 2011). Another examination of 39 news outlets covering the 2013 election in Austria using time-series analysis found strong evidence for agenda contagion between media (Vonbun, Kleinen-von Königslöw, & Schoenbach, 2016).

The homogeneity of agendas stems from a variety of factors, as the literature on agenda building (Shanahan, 2017) and on the sociology of news has demonstrated (Shoemaker & Reese, 2013). Prominent among these are exchanges with sources that provide information for stories, the daily interactions among news organizations themselves, journalism’s norms and traditions, and—more recently—online social media trends. Professional practices are the most determinant factor because news media themselves are the final arbiter of which events and issues will be reported and how. The predilection of journalists for negative news, for instance, limits the scope and variety of the media agenda (Soroka & McAdams, 2015). At the same time, the news agenda is expanded when investigative reporters raise public concern about issues such as corruption in state agencies and accounting frauds in private corporations.

Chief among the external sources of the media agenda are public officials, particularly presidents and prime ministers. Being at the center of media attention provides significant opportunities for the head of government to set the media’s agenda of issues. The relationship between the press corps and a leader’s agenda, however, is more complex than it appears to be at first, as it is shaped by the nature of the political system, the issues involved, a leader’s rhetorical ability, and real-world events that may draw attention to or away from issues (Van Aelst & Walgrave, 2016). Work on this aspect is known as policy agenda setting.

Another key influence on the news agenda is the vast network of public relations professionals, both in the private and public sector. These communication professionals “subsidize” (Gandy, 1982) the efforts of journalists to cover the news by providing substantial amounts of organized information, frequently in the form of press and video news releases, news conferences, planned events, background briefings, and messages posted on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Political campaigns are a special case of public relations activities. In presidential elections, candidates spend vast amounts of money on political advertising in an attempt to set the voters’ agenda. Social media, especially Twitter, are constantly monitored by journalists and, thus, have become a source that they use when deciding what to report and how to cover stories. This is particularly likely with breaking news, such as natural disasters (Valenzuela, Puente, & Flores, 2017).

The Psychology of Agenda-Setting Effects

The repetition of messages about public issues in the news day after day constitutes a major source of journalism’s influence on the audience. The ubiquity of news, which social media has only deepened, enables people to learn the media agenda with little deliberate effort on their part (Feezell, 2018). According to Frensch (1998), incidental learning about a particular object, person or situation is more likely when it is omnipresent. The high degree of redundancy across media agendas increases the likelihood that the public will learn the media agenda even at low levels of news exposure. Empirical demonstrations of incidental learning within the agenda-setting tradition were conducted in Germany by Bulkow, Urban, and Schweiger (2012) based on two experiments. In one of them, participants were instructed to visit a news website every day for two weeks. The coverage of the experimental issue was varied by frequency of coverage (daily vs. occasionally) and salience of presentation (lead story vs. short reports). Their results show that for people who are not personally involved with the issue, incidental media cues (e.g., news format) were sufficient to produce agenda-setting effects. The incidental nature of learning the news agenda, in turn, helps issues move rather quickly from the media to the public agenda. The real-world experiment by King et al. (2017), described earlier in the section “Basic Agenda Setting,” found that the public agenda reflected the news media agenda within six days.

The process by which the media agenda is transferred to the public agenda is also regulated by a number of other psychological factors. Need for orientation (NFO, henceforth) has been the most prominent variable regulating agenda-setting effects at the micro level. Introduced by McCombs and Weaver (1973), NFO refers to the idea that people have an innate curiosity about the world around them and a desire to become familiar with that world. For many issues, such as evaluating a new presidential candidate or judging different public policy outcomes, the news media provide this orientation. Thus, the higher the NFO, the more people tend to search for information, rely on the media, and become predisposed to exhibit agenda-setting effects.

An individual’s NFO is defined by two components, relevance and uncertainty (Weaver, 1980). Relevance is the initial defining condition that determines the level of NFO for each individual. If a topic is perceived as irrelevant, then NFO is low. Individuals in this situation pay little or no attention to news reports and, at most, demonstrate weaker agenda-setting effects. For individuals among whom the relevance of a topic is high, their degree of uncertainty about the topic determines the level of NFO. If this uncertainty is low—that is, they feel they understand the topic—the NFO is moderate. These individuals will monitor the media for new developments, but they are not likely to be avid consumers of news about the topic. Finally, among individuals for whom both relevance and their uncertainty about a situation are high, NFO is high. These individuals are typically avid consumers of news, and strong agenda-setting effects are found among them (McCombs, 2014).

Relevance, in turn, is influenced by multiple sources, including values and emotions. Values refer to people’s core beliefs about what are desirable and undesirable end states of human life (Schwartz & Bilsky, 1987). Using a content analysis of newspapers, a survey, and an experiment, Valenzuela (2011) found that agenda-setting effects were stronger when the topics in the news agenda matched individuals’ values. Based on Inglehart’s (1977) theory of values, he found that individuals with materialist values exhibited larger agenda-setting effects for materialist issues such as the economy and crime than for post-materialist issues such as the environment and political reform. Conversely, post-materialist individuals exhibited larger agenda-setting effects for post-materialist issues than for materialist issues. In a subsequent study, Valenzuela and Chernov (2016) found that the mechanism by which values influenced issue salience was through NFO; that is, values cause NFO.

Emotions toward objects in the news matter, too. Despite the tradition in Western thought of downplaying emotion while highlighting reason, neuroscientists have long contended that affect and cognition are intertwined. In agenda setting, Miller’s (2007) experiments found that certain emotions triggered by the news explained issue salience judgments. For instance, only when participants felt sad or afraid did crime news stories result in increased concern for the issue of crime. Other affective responses, such as anger or hope, did not increase the salience of crime.

The media, of course, are not our only source of orientation to public affairs. Personal experience, which includes communication with our family, friends, and coworkers, also informs us about many issues. The dominant source of influence will vary from issue to issue. For instance, a visit to a supermarket or gas station may prove more informative about the problem of inflation than reading an article on it in the business news section. To learn about more distant topics, however, the news media may well be the main source of information, if not the only one.

Finding that NFO, values, emotions, and other variables make a difference in how journalism influences the public agenda sheds light on the psychology of agenda-setting effects. Some authors think these effects result from cognitive accessibility (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). Accessibility refers to how readily objects and their attributes come to mind, such that the more quickly some elements come to mind, the more important or salient they become. News coverage, it was argued, makes some issues, events, and figures more accessible than others, and hence agenda setting would be a consequence of easily accessible media information being considered more important.

The empirical evidence, however, does not support the top-of-mind explanation. In Miller’s (2007) study on emotions in agenda setting, she measured cognitive accessibility and found it was not correlated with issue salience. In another series of experiments, Dillman Carpentier (2014) found that issue salience did not result from top-of-mind awareness, but from the type of source conveying information about the issue. Specifically, when the topic was mentioned in a news website, it was perceived as more important, but not when it was mentioned in a blog or on a game site. In an original experiment comparing the agenda-setting power of journalism and Twitter, Stoycheff, Pingree, Peifer, and Sui (2018) found that simple cues, like information about how many times a topic had been covered in the news or mentioned on Twitter (but not actual exposure to these stories), increased the importance of the topic. For these reasons, research on the psychology of agenda setting has abandoned accessibility. Instead, studying other, more substantive variables, such as NFO, values, and media trust (Tsfati, 2003), or examining dual processing models (Pingree & Stoycheff, 2013), has proven to be a more productive avenue.

Another constraint on the power of the news media to set the public agenda is the limited capacity of that agenda. The Latinobarometer 2017 survey, which polled 18 Latin American countries on their most important problems, found that only four issues garnered 10% or more responses, the level that has been identified as the threshold for significant public attention (Neuman, 1990). The same is true for the United States, according to an analysis of 40 years of Gallup data (Edy & Meirick, 2018). The news media agenda is also constrained, and the supposedly limitless capacity of the internet has not changed this. Data from the 2012 News Coverage Index collected in the United States by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that only four topics exceeded 10% of the news hole (i.e., the amount of space in a publication that remains for journalism after advertising has been placed) among the 12 websites considered.

Consequences of Agenda Setting for Attitudes and Behavior

Although agenda setting is a theory that was developed to understand the effects of journalism on people’s knowledge, it has also been used to understand the effects of news on attitudes and behaviors. First, researchers have found there is an important connection between the attention to an object paid by news organizations and the existence of an opinion about it among news users. During an election, for instance, the media focus their attention on the major candidates, which, in turn, leads to more people forming opinions about them (Kiousis & McCombs, 2004). In other words, absent news coverage, opinions about unobtrusive issues or little-known public figures will tend to be neutral or nonexistent. Thus, agenda setting can influence, indirectly, both attitude formation and attitude strength.

Another prominent consequence of agenda setting on attitudes is media priming, a process in which the prominence of issues on the news influences the standards used by individuals to evaluate governments and public figures (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987). When asked their opinions about topics such as performance of the president, most citizens do not engage in a comprehensive analysis of their total store of information. Rather, individuals use information shortcuts or heuristics (Zaller, 1992). One of these shortcuts is the agenda of salient objects—an agenda that is set to a considerable degree by the news media. The more the media cover a particular issue—prime that issue—the more people will rely on what they know about it to make political judgments (Tesler, 2015). Ultimately, media priming may lead people to vote differently, providing a connection between agenda setting and behavior (Sheafer & Weimann, 2005).

Media priming can also result from attribute agenda setting. More specifically, researchers have found that the increased salience among the public of specific attributes emphasized by the media can influence the weight people assign to those attributes in their evaluations of objects (Sheafer, 2007). This process is usually a consequence of the valence of particularly salient attributes, that is, positive or negative attributes as perceived by the public. Thus, when the news highlights a negative economic event (e.g., a fall in disposable income), not only will the issue of the economy become more prominent, but also the way people evaluate the state of the economy will be based on that particular aspect and not on others (e.g., unemployment).

A second aspect of the priming literature that is important for agenda setting asks which members of the public are more susceptible to media influence. At question is how competent citizens are at making political decisions. If priming effects occur because people are politically naïve, then the news media have a worrying power over citizens, as this would indicate that individuals’ preferences are fully malleable by the media and political elites. If, on the other hand, priming occurs among more politically sophisticated citizens, then media influence could be the result of a rather deliberative process by which people actively filter news content. Valenzuela (2009) proposed that media priming varies across levels of political involvement following an inverted-U shape. Priming should be strongest for citizens with moderate levels of involvement, who are interested enough in public affairs to follow the news, but lack the ideological strength to reject media cues. Using a content analysis of press coverage and a panel survey from the 2006 Canadian election, he found that, as predicted, priming was highest for citizens with medium levels of knowledge and discussion frequency, and lowest for citizens at either extreme of these involvement measures. Compared to pessimistic and optimistic accounts of citizen competence, these findings present a more nuanced perspective on individuals’ ability to filter and process news.

Influencing not just what people think, but also what people do is the apogee of media effects. As a preeminent theory of the influence of journalism on public opinion, agenda setting has been used to understand behavioral outcomes, too. A classic example is a 1970s study about news coverage of airplane crashes and skyjackings, which found that when the media focused its attention on the risks of flying, ticket sales decreased, and flight insurance sales increased (Bloj, as cited in McCombs, 2014). During the 2008 US presidential election, Weeks and Southwell (2010) demonstrated that television and newspaper coverage of the false rumor that Barack Obama was secretly Muslim predicted aggregate search behaviors in Google.

Moving beyond a simple stimulus–response model of media effects, more comprehensive studies have examined the mechanisms by which agenda setting influences political behavior. A prominent example is a study based on a two-wave survey of adolescents and their parents from various states across the United States. Combining the insights of the agenda-setting and youth-socialization literatures, Kiousis and McDevitt (2008) found that when families talked about the gubernational election in 2002, adolescents’ attention to news during the 2004 presidential election increased. Heightened news use led to more emphasis of the Iraq War and, most importantly, stronger feelings about how the Bush administration handled the issue of Iraq. Attitude strength, in turn, motivated teenagers to adopt a more global ideological identity and, ultimately, vote in the 2004 election. Thus, basic agenda-setting effects on turnout were indirect, through both specific and general political attitudes.

The behavioral outcomes of attribute agenda setting have also been explored through multiple causal chains. By combining a content analysis of news coverage in Kosovo with a public opinion survey, Camaj (2014) found that the aspects highlighted by the media when it described political institutions influenced people’s confidence in institutions. Political trust, in turn, determined the likelihood of engaging in conventional political activities, such as voting or working for parties. Nevertheless, studying the behavioral impact of agenda setting remains an elusive aspect of the theory.

Agenda-setting research has expanded considerably into new arenas since the seminal Chapel Hill study of 1968. Its focus on journalism and public opinion, however, is still central. Importantly, the decline of the so-called legacy media—once seen as the basis of the theory—has not meant a decline in agenda-setting research. This is because its concepts have been demonstrated to be useful for understanding the effects of communication in general, whether this communication involves the news media, social media, governments, or citizens.

Future research, however, should keep refining the core ideas of agenda setting and produce new knowledge regarding the importance of news in society. Using agenda setting to understand journalism across cultures as well as the emerging media landscape seem fruitful venues for future research. McCombs (2014, p. 37) noted that agenda-setting effects occur “wherever there is a reasonably open political and a reasonably open media system” (p. 44). This statement is supported by studies conducted in non-democratic countries such as China, which show that the public and media agendas diverge considerably (Luo, 2013). Level of democracy, however, is not the only contextual variable that matters. More work is needed in terms of linking variations in the process of agenda setting to differences in cultural orientations (e.g., collectivism vs. individualism), journalists’ professional roles (Hanitzsch, Hanusch, Ramaprasad, & de Beer, 2019), governmental communication styles (e.g., populist vs. liberal), and so forth. Furthermore, future work needs to study the interactions between these country-level variables and individual-level factors. For instance, does intermedia agenda setting work differently in collectivist countries relative to individualistic countries?

The myriad content choices brought upon by interactive media has increased the competition for people’s attention, thus challenging the place of news in people’s media diet. For the same reason, journalists are more closely following social media trends when deciding their coverage. The New York Times, for instance, created a news desk specifically for “keeping an eye out for the stories that our digital audience is going to be looking for” (Winstead, 2017, para. 5). This creates opportunities for a reversal of basic agenda setting, or agenda-uptake effects (Gruszczynski & Wagner, 2017). How and when do social media and the public set the news agenda? At the same time, more work is needed to understand how individuals adopt the news agenda in the digital environment. Is it through a process of incidental exposure to news coverage or cues signaling the relevant news of the day without actual exposure to that coverage? Addressing these questions can help expand and refine future applications of agenda-setting theory to journalism studies.

Further Reading

Guo, L., & McCombs, M. (Eds.). (2016). The power of information networks: New directions for agenda setting. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

    Harder, R. A., Sevenans, J., & Van Aelst, P. (2017). Intermedia agenda setting in the social media age: How traditional players dominate the news agenda in election times. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 22, 275–293.Find this resource:

      Johnson, T. J. (Ed.) (2015). Agenda setting in a 2.0 world. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

        McCombs, M. E. (2014). Setting the agenda: The mass media and public opinion (2nd ed.). Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.Find this resource:

          Vargo, C. J. (Ed.) (2019). The agenda setting journal: Theory, practice, critique. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.Find this resource:

            Wolfe, M., Jones, B., & Baumgartner, F. (2013). A failure to communicate: Agenda setting in media and policy studies. Political Communication, 30, 175–192.Find this resource:

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