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Article

Stefaan Walgrave and Peter Van Aelst

Recently, the number of studies examining whether media coverage has an effect on the political agenda has been growing strongly. Most studies found that preceding media coverage does exert an effect on the subsequent attention for issues by political actors. These effects are contingent, though, they depend on the type of issue and the type of political actor one is dealing with. Most extant work has drawn on aggregate time-series designs, and the field is as good as fully non-comparative. To further develop our knowledge about how and why the mass media exert influence on the political agenda, three ways forward are suggested. First, we need better theory about why political actors would adopt media issues and start devoting attention to them. The core of such a theory should be the notion of the applicability of information encapsulated in the media coverage to the goals and the task at hand of the political actors. Media information has a number of features that make it very attractive for political actors to use—it is often negative, for instance. Second, we plead for a disaggregation of the level of analysis from the institutional level (e.g., parliament) or the collective actor level (e.g., party) to the individual level (e.g., members of parliament). Since individuals process media information, and since the goals and tasks of individuals that trigger the applicability mechanism are diverse, the best way to move forward is to tackle the agenda setting puzzle at the individual level. This implies surveying individual elites or, even better, implementing experimental designs to individual elite actors. Third, the field is in dire need of comparative work comparing how political actors respond to media coverage across countries or political systems.