Ever wonder why some stories or issues are given lots of attention, while others, that may be equally important, fall by the wayside? The answer: agenda setting. It's a theory that says: Media outlets and politicians decide which issues are important, then by virtue of them being covered, become topics of discussion in the public. And, they are perceived by society as "important" or "urgent."
Agenda setting is a role that can be played by both media and policymakers. However, it is most often referred to as a function of mass media: newspapers, magazines, radio and television. The meaning of "agenda setting" is that the mass media chooses which topics to cover, which then in turn shapes public opinion on that matter. It also shapes public opinion on what is considered important in this time and day.
There are many ways that mass media can set an agenda. In newspapers, the agenda is set by which stories are placed on the front page and which are hidden on the inside. Also, which articles are at the top of the front page versus the bottom of the front page gives a message to readers that one is more important than the other. In magazines, similar to newspapers, the featured story is most important. In television and radio news, how much time is spent on a story and the order in which the stories are told tell the viewer or listener which are important. The television news purposely tells the "most important" stories first, knowing that the viewer can turn off the television at any moment.
The effects of agenda setting can be seen in another form of mass media: online. Chat rooms (or discussion rooms) are normally set up by the types of topics that are meant to be discussed. Because of agenda setting, a new chat room can be created focusing on the topic of "Earthquake in Haiti," for example. Or agenda setting could create a new e-mail listserv on that topic.
In journalism, "objectivity" is a term that came about because of public criticism about their agenda setting role. Objectivity is a journalistic principle that says journalists should be free of bias in their reporting. Most recently, the term objectivity has been replaced with other terms like "fairness" and "balance."
One debate between researchers of the agenda setting theory is the question of cause: Does the mass media cause the public to think a certain topic is important, or is it the other way around? Does the media gauge what the public thinks is important, then write or broadcast a story around that? There is much research that supports the theory that the media affects what the public thinks is important. But, the idea that the public agenda influences the media agenda is still, to this day, open to question.
Walter Lippmann, a prominent American journalist and scholar from Harvard University, was the first person to study the effects of the media on public opinion in 1922. His book "Public Opinion" described how people did not respond to the real world around them, but a "pseudo-world" that contained "pictures in their heads." The media was the one influencing these pictures.
The agenda setting theory, now most often referred to as a function of mass media and not a theory, was developed by Professors Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in their Chapel Hill Study (1968). They studied the way political campaigns were covered in the media and found that mass media set the agenda for public opinion. It was actually the main effect of mass media.
"Here may lie the most important effect of mass communication, its ability to mentally order and organise 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." --Shaw & McCombs, 1977
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