Agenda Setting Theory

A Review – Continuation

Agenda-Melding and Agenda-Building

Focusing on agenda-setting as a political process, Dearing and Rogers (1996) proposed an agenda-setting process, referring to “an ongoing competition among issue proponents to gain the attention of media professionals, the public, and policy elites” (p. 2). Specifically, they saw the agenda-setting process as an explanation of why certain issues are salient and how they come to be on the media agenda (media agenda-setting), the public agenda (public agenda-setting), or the policy agenda (policy agenda-setting). Later, Shaw and colleagues (1999) added the concept of “agenda-melding” as a theoretical elaboration of the concept of need for orientation. Agenda- melding posited individuals have a proclivity to belong to groups of some kind (e.g., professional and social) and tend to seek and adopt agendas of groups they join.

Agenda-melding focuses on the personal agendas of individuals vis-à-vis their community and group affiliations. Groups and communities represent a collected agenda of issues. One joins a group by adopting an agenda (Matthes & Roberts, 2009).

Shaw et al. (1999) describe agenda-melding as a theory of social dissonance in reference to Festiger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance in which individuals seek out information that supports their views and avoid information that conflicts with their views.

The research on agenda-setting has focused on what individuals learn from mass media agendas, while research on agenda-melding argued individuals use a variety of media

and meld their personal agendas with a group agenda. In this sense, agenda-melding has been explained as a kind of reverse effect of agenda-setting (Weaver, McCombs, & Shaw, 2004).

Weaver et al (2004) argue evolution of media and technology creates a fertile environment for the melding of a wider range of group and individual agendas. While traditionally groups were formed around general topics and geographically bound, new media encourage the formation of specialized communities that are non-geographically bound.

Agenda-building is derived from the question of “who sets the media’s agenda” (McCombs, 2004, p. 98). In the area of politics, Cobb and Elder (1971) examined how public policy issues were created and who took part in the agenda-building process. From the agenda-building perspective, national-level issue agendas were built by triggering concerns ranging from individual to collective agendas.

The patterns of news coverage that defines the media agenda results from the norms and traditions of journalism, the daily interactions among news organizations themselves, and the continuous interaction of news organizations with numerous sources and their agendas. And because journalists routinely look over their shoulders to validate their sense of news by observing the work of their colleagues, this stage includes intermediate agenda-setting, the influence of the news media on each other (McCombs, 2005).

The media does not operate within a vacuum. The media agenda in fact is the result of the influences that certain powerful groups exert as a subtle form of social control. Journalists have limited time and limited resources that can contribute to external sources getting involved in the news media’s gatekeeping process, and some scholars have attempted to reveal certain relationships between information sources and the agenda the news media has made up, probing who builds the media agenda. There are multiple sources that can participate in this agenda-building process through various different ways.

Psychology of Agenda-setting Effects

Most of the research studies on agenda-setting have measured the effect of media agendas on public opinion. However, some findings suggest media priorities also affect people’s behavior.

The Chapel Hill study and much of the subsequent research has compared the focus of attention by the news media on key public issues with the public’s focus of attention. This often-documented transfer of salience from the news media to the public is a key early step in the formation of public opinion (McCombs, 2005).

The transmission of object and attribute salience from the press to the public about issues, political figures and other topics has significant consequences for people’s attitudes and opinions. This stage of agenda-setting theory has identified three distinct consequences of agenda settings for attitudes and opinions: forming an opinion, priming opinions about public figures through an emphasis on particular issues and shaping an opinion through an emphasis on particular attributes.

McCombs (2005) stated answers to questions about the links between agenda-setting effects and attitudes and opinions would be advanced by previous questions about the process of attribute agenda-setting and further explication of the concept of need for orientation.

Craig Trumbo (2012) monitored the headlines for stories about the flu virus in 32 different newspapers between 2002 and 2008 (Ghanem, 1996; McCombs, 2005). Trumbo also had access to the regular flu reports issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reports showed the number of visit to doctors for flu-like symptoms as well as the actual number of cases of the flu. It could be expected that with more actual flu cases, doctor visits would increase and journalists would be more likely to cover the story. However, Trumbo (2012) found that the amount of media coverage on the flu during one week predicted the number of doctor visits the next week. There was no evidence of a reverse effect. In other words, patient visits to the doctor for flu symptoms did not predict later media coverage about the virus.

Trends in Research in the New Century

McCombs (2005) suggested two major trends in agenda-setting research – the first on the revision and expansion of the basic concepts of agenda-setting theory and the second on the revision and expansion of the theory in new settings beyond public opinion.

When reflecting on future expansion of the theory, McCombs (2005) observed the internet dramatically changed the communication landscape with the introduction of myriad new channels. He argued there are more agendas in contemporary society, as more channels became readily available to a large segment of the public (McCombs, 2005).

Althaus and Tewksbury (2002) predicted the end of agenda-setting as audiences fragmented and everyone had a unique external media agenda that is a highly individualized.The result of these idiosyncratic personal agendas would be a public agenda characterized by considerable diversity and the scattering of public information (Althaus & Tewksbury, 2002).

To refute Althaus and Tewksbury’s (2002) argument, McCombs (2005) introduced the idea of homogeneity, which stated media agendas to which members of the public routinely attend to be highly homogeneous.

McCombs (2005) quoted James Hamilton (2004), who had previously noted that the five largest American newspapers – Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post – accounted for 21.5 percent of the circulation among the 100 daily newspapers. In his research, Hamilton (2004) observed the top five newspaper websites – which included three of those newspapers, USA Today, New Your Times, and Seattle Times – accounted for 41.4 percent of the total links found on the internet to the top 100 newspapers. Hamilton’s (2004) findings showed that attention on the web was even more concentrated than in the print world (Hamilton, 2004; McCombs, 2005).

McCombs (2005) concluded that regardless of whether the basic agenda-settings effects of the news media continue in much the same fashion as in previous decades or eventually disappear because of the changing media landscape, measuring these effects would remain high on the research agenda for at least the near term (McCombs, 2005).

Ragas and Robert (2009) analyzed agenda-melding and agenda-building in an age of horizontal and vertical media. They postulated at the intersection of vertical and horizontal media, a new class of media, called virtual brand communities, has emerged. Thanks to their location on the internet, these communities are generally globally accessible and often feel like vertical media, but, like horizontal media, they serve specialized interest groups. These communities sprouted up at a time when there were signs the public finds traditional brand-controlled communications to be disruptive.

The Internet, Social Media, and the Agenda-Setting Theory

With the expansion of the internet, the agenda-setting process between the media agenda and the public agenda became rather complicated. Media users became able to acquire information through various media channels according to individual differences and preferences.

As noted by Kim and Lee (2016), the agenda-setting effect in cyberspace usually occurs in a predictable fashion. First, an individual’s opinion can be disseminated through various online channels that influence public opinion (internet-mediated agenda-rippling). Next, the agenda of online news media affects the agenda of the traditional news media as well as online publics (internet-mediated reversed agenda-setting). Finally, the agenda of the traditional news media might set the offline public agenda (agenda-setting).

Guo and McCombs (2011) developed a network agenda-setting theory as the third level of agenda-setting. The central hypothesis for network agenda-setting was that the salience of the interrelationships among constructs or the associative network regarding a certain topic can be transferred from the media agenda to the public agenda.

While the first and second theoretical and methodological trends of agenda-setting theory (levels of agenda-setting) emphasize the salience of issues or attributes of the media agenda on the public agenda, the concept of network agenda-setting focuses on the salience of the network agenda, which consists of forms of integrated and networked images, on the public. The concept of network agenda-setting highlights the importance of associative networks in individuals’ thinking.

Similar to traditional agenda-setting, network agenda-setting allows the media to shape the perceived importance of an issue in the public mind. However, the concept of network agenda-setting suggests the salience of the networks of objects and attributes of media on the networks of the public. Network agenda-setting involves the effects of the media agenda networks on the public agenda networks (Guo, 2012).

From traditional mass media to the internet media environment, the application of agenda-setting theory has evolved from addressing first-level agenda-setting to describing second-level agenda-setting, the need for orientation, inter-media agenda-setting, agenda- melding, agenda building, and third-level agenda-setting.

In the internet landscape, it became important to explore the directions of research on agenda-setting, as its applications remain endless. One example is a study conducted in 2015 by Kim, Gonzenbach, and Vargo, who investigated the extent to which social media content may bypass, follow, or attract the attention of traditional media. Their study shed light on this dynamics by examining intermedia agenda-setting effects among the Twitter feeds of the 2012 presidential primary candidates, Twitter feeds of the Republican and Democratic parties, and articles published in the nation’s top newspapers. Daily issue frequencies within media were analyzed using time series analysis. A symbiotic relationship was found between agendas in Twitter posts and traditional news, with varying levels of intensity and differential time lags by issue. While traditional media followed candidates on certain topics, on others they were able to predict the political agenda on Twitter (Kim et al., 2015).

Vargo, Guo, and Amazeen (2018) examined the agenda-setting power of fake news and fact-checkers who fight them through a computational look at the online mediascape from 2014 to 2016. Although their study confirmed content from fake news websites was increasing, it found these sites do not exert excessive power. Instead, Vargo and colleagues found fake news has an intricately entwined relationship with online partisan media, both responding and setting its issue agenda. In 2016, partisan media appeared to be especially susceptible to the agendas of fake news, perhaps due to the election.

They concluded emerging news media were also responsive to the agendas of fake news, but to a lesser degree. Their results pointed fake news coverage itself is diverging and becoming more autonomous topically. While fact-checkers are autonomous in their selection of issues to cover, they were not influential in determining the agenda of news media overall, and their influence appears to be declining, illustrating the difficulties fact-checkers face in disseminating their corrections (Vargo et al., 2018).

In a study involving both traditional and online media channels, Vu and colleagues (2019) investigated the media agenda-setting effects in 16 countries (Argentina, Austria, Canada, Chile, Germany, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom, and United States). A total of 24,229 people from the 16 countries participated in the survey. Data was collected between 2010 and 2011.

Like conventional agenda-setting research, the study used content analysis for the media agenda data and survey for public agenda data. The questionnaire asked respondents to enumerate the most important issues in their countries. A group of researchers, either native speakers or fluent in the languages, collected data from major publications in the 16 countries.

The study’s findings provided evidence individual factors such as age, education, living area, political ideology, and national macro variables, including economic development and media freedom, are associated with the strength of media agenda-setting effects in public agendas. The results showed agenda-setting effects were strongest in countries with high levels of economic development but little media freedom; people in countries with higher level of Economic development were less likely to be swayed by the news media; finally, the news media’s agenda-setting effects are stronger for conservatives than they are for liberals overall.

Agenda-Setting in Democratic Societies

The unique contribution of the agenda-setting perspective is that it adopts the pluralistic values of democracy theory, bringing public opinion to center stage. This emphasis on public opinion is especially characteristic of the conceptualizations of the entire agenda-setting process where public opinion plays a deterministic role (Dearing & Rogers, 2006).

Ideally, in American democracy theory, the process monitors the political environment, contributes to the formation of public opinion, and, thereby, motivates policy initiatives. One crucial assumption about the agenda-setting process is that the media agenda often launches the process, putting an issue of the public agenda, which then may lead to policy change. This instigating role for the mass media highlights a crucial role play in a democratic society (Dearing & Rogers, 2006).

To identify the impact of media agenda on political decisions, Vlieegenhart et al. (2016) investigated the impact of media coverage of protest on issue attention in parliaments in six Western European countries. They concluded media coverage of protests affects parliamentary agendas: the more media attention protests n an issue receives, the more parliamentary questions on that issue are asked.


In agenda-setting theory, both qualitative and quantitative methods are used to answer research questions.

The agenda-setting theory fares well when evaluated as a social science theory. It predicts that the public’s agenda for the salience of attitude objects and key attributes will follow the media’s lead, and explains why some people are more susceptible to media influence than others. Those predictions are testable by using content analysis to establish the media agenda, surveys to determine public opinion, and quantitative statistical tests to determine the overlap.

The public agenda is usually measured by means of a special kind of question in a public opinion poll. The question usually takes the form: “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” This question and minor variations of it has been asked by the Gallup Poll some 200 times since World War II (Dearing & Rogers, 1996).

Both quantitative and qualitative methods can be seen in the aforementioned study, which  investigated the media agenda-setting effects in 16 countries (Argentina, Austria, Canada, Chile, Germany, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom, and United States). A total of 24,229 people from the 16 countries participated in the survey (Vu et al., 2019).

Like conventional agenda-setting research, the study used content analysis for the media agenda data and survey for public agenda data.

The public agenda data used in this study were based on the results of a large survey conducted by the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP). Vu et al. collected nationally representative data from different countries on various topics. The surveys were conducted in 2010 and 2011 in 33 countries.

The public agenda was measured with two items that asked respondents: ‘Which of these issues is the most important for [country] today?’ and ‘Which is the next most important?’ For each question, respondents chose one of eight answer options, including Health care, Education, Crime, The environment, Immigration, The economy, Terrorism, and Poverty or “None of these” or “Can’t choose.”

To measure media content data, a group of researchers who are either native speakers or fluent in the languages collected data from major publications in 16 countries. Selection criteria for the publications were: recognized prestige and influence in the country, top circulation, reflection of the political spectrum in the country, and accessibility to newspaper databases for the period of the study. Based on the criteria, 31 newspapers were selected.

Lexicoder, a computer-assisted program that uses a dictionary-based approach, was employed for automated content analysis of the media data. To analyze the texts, Vu et al. used the dictionary developed by Soroka and colleagues (2013) that contains words of different public affairs topics. The dictionary was translated from English to all related languages by native speakers of each of the languages. The program was then used to scan through the texts to identify the frequencies of the words in the public affairs topic categories. The frequency of the words in each of the topics will then be used to correlate with the frequencies of mentions of that topic in the survey response.


The original studies on agenda-setting referred to the traditional drivers of mass media. These were constituted by newsroom staff, editors, journalists etc. In many instances today, this has changed. The “agenda setters” themselves may be the human beings who work on the news feed team at the corporation of Facebook (or other social media that use this strategy) and write the algorithms. The algorithms themselves, the lines of code that dictate what appears on any given user’s news feed, become a synergized part of the “agenda setters” group. It is both human and machine.

While early mass media researchers could little predict the invention of such a powerful influence as the internet, let alone the ensuing phenomenon of social media, early investigations on the agenda-setting theory were able to supersede the technical constraints of their time in order to tap into lasting insights about society.

The third level of agenda-setting introduces the newest perspective on this influence. While levels one and two are concerned with the salience of discrete individual elements, the third level offers a more comprehensive and nuanced perspective to explain media effects in this evolving media landscape: the ability of the news media to determine how the public associates the various elements in these media messages to create an integrated picture of public affairs. New methodological and technical approaches are needed to examine these relationships. Cutting-edge communication analytics such as network analysis, big data and data visualization techniques are examples of methods to examine these third-level effects.

Today, agenda-setting is not a one-way pattern from traditional media to a mass audience, but rather a complex and dynamic interaction. Although the attentional dynamics of traditional and social media are correlated, the rhythms of attention in each respond to a significant number of different drummers.

What has changed since 1972 is who is setting the agenda, the difference between everyone’s agendas, and the way they interact.


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