Agenda Setting Theory

A Review


The beginning of the agenda setting theory can be traced back to 1922, when Walter Lippmann expressed his concern about the vital role that mass media has on the setting of certain images on the public’s mind. In portraying the influence of mass media and lack thereof, Lippmann examined a group of Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Germans who lived in an island in 1914. The group’s access to international affairs news was limited, therefore they did not hear about the beginning of the First World War immediately. While they were unaware of the conflict, they “trusted the picture in their heads and continued doing business as usual” (Lippmann, 1922, p. 4). Lippmann claimed “the media act as a mediator between the world outside and the pictures in our heads” (1922, p. 29).

It was not until 1972 that the agenda-setting theory was formally conceptualized and presented by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, who examined how news editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important role in shaping political reality. By analyzing the 1972 American president election, they postulated that readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). Salience, the central focus of the theory, can be described as the product of both personal and social forces that direct the audience’s attention.

The agenda theory has been studied and expanded since McCombs and Shaw’s 1972 paper. Today some social observers predict the end of agenda setting as the audiences fragment and virtually everyone has a unique external media agenda that is highly individualized. Nevertheless, the theory remains applicable and continues to evolve.


Conceptualization and Early Development

In 1922 Walter Lippmann’s book Public Opinion set the stage for the theory of agenda-setting by arguing that the news media construct our view of the world (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009).

The idea people desire media assistance in determining political reality had already been voiced by a number of current events analysts, however, the term “agenda-setting” would not be coined until 1972 by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw.

To investigate the agenda-setting capacity of the mass media in the 1968 presidential campaign, McCombs and Shaw (1972) matched what Chapel Hill voters said were key issues of the campaign with the actual content of the mass media used by them during the campaign. By restricting the study to one community, numerous other sources of variation were controlled.

Concurrently with the 100 voters interviews, the mass media serving these voters were collected and content analyzed. For the Chapel Hill community almost all the mass media political information was provided by six newspapers, two magazines, and two evening news broadcasts (Durham Morning Herald, Durham Sun, Raleigh News and Observer, Raleigh Times, New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and NBC and CBS evening news broadcasts).

The answers of respondents regarding major problems as they saw them and the news editorial comment appearing between September 12 and October 6 of 1968 in the sampled newspapers, magazines and broadcasts were coded into 15 categories representing the key issues and other kinds of campaign news. Media news content was also divided into “major” and “minor” levels to see whether there was any substantial difference in mass media emphasis across topics. For the printed media, this major/minor division was in terms of space and position; for television, it was made in terms of position and time allowed (McCombs & Shaw, 1972).

The study concluded the existence of an agenda-setting function of the mass media was correlated with the voters’ agenda. The results also confirmed that news media shared a consensus on news values, especially in major news stories from day to day. McCombs and Shaw (1972) indicated that voters tend to share the media composite definition of what is important, influencing the salience of attitudes toward the political issues. News media have a point of view, sometimes extreme biases. However, they share consensus on news values, especially on major news items (McCombs & Shaw, 1972).

In this paramount study, McCombs and Shaw (1972) quoted Cohen (1963), who noted that “the press may not be successful in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.”


Need for Orientation

McCombs and Weaver (1973) and Weaver (1977) introduced the concept of “need for orientation” (NFO), which explained the psychological conditions of agenda-setting. The defined NFO as a combination of the individual’s interest in the topic and uncertainty about the issue. The higher levels of interest and uncertainty produce higher levels of NFO.

McCombs and Weaver (1973) reasoned every individual feels some need to be familiar with his or her surroundings, to fill enough detail to orient himself or herself. They asserted that the NFO leads to media use, which in turn leads to agenda-setting effects of media. They speculated increased relevance and uncertainty were important psychological preconditions for arousal of a NFO based on information-seeking theory. They devised a model in which relevance preceded uncertainty in a time such that a low level of relevance led directly to a low NFO, and a high level of relevance coupled with a low level of uncertainty led to a high level of NFO.

McCombs and Weaver (1973) predicted the use of newspapers and television for political information and the political agenda-setting effects of these media would increase monotonically as NFO increased. Using a variety of operational definitions of relevance and uncertainty, they tested these predictions with data from two surveys conducted in Durham and Charlotte, North Carolina, in spring and summer of 1972, and found considerable support for both predictions. NFO was significantly correlated with media use for political information, which led to stronger agenda-setting effects.

McCombs (2004) posited relevance is the initial and uncertainty the subsequent defining condition of NFO. If relevance is low, the NFO will also be low, independent of uncertainty. When there is high relevance, uncertainty does matter. In the following year, McCombs (2005) stated there are significant individual differences in the responses to the media agenda. These differences were to be explained in large measure by the concept of NFO. People have their reasons for attending – or not attending – to the news agenda (McCombs, 2005). In other words, people are not passive in the agenda-setting process; much the opposite.

A study by Matthes (2006) provided evidence uncertainty only influences the NFO of individuals when relevance is high. The study posited relevance and uncertainty were lower order concepts, not direct measures of NFO. Conceived this way, it can be stated NFO was only measured indirectly in all previous studies. Matthes suggested a new and more direct measure, the NFO scale. This scale used direct indicators expressing the motivation of respondents to turn to the news media in order to receive information about an issue. The scale distinguished three correlated dimensions of NFO: NFO towards issues, NFO towards facts, and NFO towards journalistic evaluations.

Framing and Second Level Agenda-Setting

As a follow-up to the Chapel Hill study, Shaw and McCombs (1977) introduced the concept of attribute agenda. They theorized not only the media agenda but also objects attributes have an agenda-setting effect, illustrating the influence of the attribute agenda on the public’s attribute agenda (i.e., second-level agenda-setting).

Shaw and McCombs (1977) theorized the attribute agenda contained cognitive components such as information that describes characteristics of the object as well as affective components including tone (positive, negative, or neutral) of the agenda. Second-level agenda-setting differs from first-level agenda-setting in that it focuses on attribute salience, and the public’s attribute agenda was regarded as one of the important variables (Shaw & McCombs, 1977; McCombs, 1981).

Both traditional agenda-setting effects and attribute agenda-setting effects involve the transfer of salience. The core proposition of these two stages is that elements prominent on the media agenda become prominent over time on the public agenda. The media not only can be successful in telling people what to think about; they can also be successful in telling people how to think about it (McCombs, 2005).

At the level of attention – the domain of traditional agenda-setting effects – Granem (1996) and McCombs (2005) clarified agendas are defined abstractly by a set of objects. In turn, these objects have attributes, a variety of characteristics and traits that describe them. When the news media talk about an object – and when members of the public talk and think about an object – some attributes are emphasized, others are mentioned only in passing. For each object on the agenda, there is an agenda of attributes that influences the audience’s understanding of the object.

A frame is an attribute of the object into consideration because it describes the object. However, not all attributes are frames. If a frame is defined as a dominant perspective on the object, then a frame is delimited to a very special case of attributes. This definition identifies two distinct types of attributes – aspect and central themes. Aspects are a general category of attributes. Central themes are a delimited category of attributes because they are the attributes defining a dominant perspective on an object (McCombs, 2005). In other words, attributes defining a central theme are frames.

McCombs (1997, p. 37) suggested in the language of the second level of agenda-setting, ‘‘framing is the selection of a restricted number of thematically related attributes for inclusion on the media agenda when a particular object is discussed.’’

The convergence of attribute agenda-setting with the concept of framing offers insights and raises questions about the influence that various types of descriptions found in the news have on how the public thinks about public affairs topics (McCombs, 2005).

Gamson (1992) has conceived of framing in terms of a ‘‘signature matrix’’ that includes various condensing symbols (catchphrases, taglines, exemplars, metaphors, depictions, visual images) and reasoning devices (causes and consequences, appeals to principles or moral claims). Some would argue second-level agenda-setting is more similar to the first part of this matrix than to the second, because it is easier to think of condensing symbols as attributes of a given object but more difficult to think of reasoning devices as attributes (Weaver, McCombs, & Shaw, 2004).

Tankard, Hendrickson, Silberman, Bliss, and Ghanem (1991, p. 3) described a media frame as ‘‘the central organizing idea for news content that supplies a context and suggests what the issue is through the use of selection, emphasis, exclusion, and elaboration.’’ Entman (1993, p. 52) argues ‘‘to frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.’’

Stromback and Kiousis (2010) postulated that the message propagated by agenda-setting is cumulative. These authors explained a news article does not provide an agenda, but placed within the context of previous and future similar stories across different media, it might elevate an issue into the media agenda. In contrast, individual messages contain frames. For instance, journalists cannot choose not to frame their news articles (Stromback & Luego, 2010). Thus, a media agenda, derived from a cumulation of messages each containing frames, can include multiple and even conflicting frames.


The focus on the consequences of agenda-setting for public opinion, often labeled “priming” can be traced back to Weaver et al. (1975), who speculated, in their study of the effects of Watergate news coverage, that the media may suggest which issues to use in evaluating political actors. However, Weaver et al. (1975) did not use the term “priming” to describe this process. Their speculation was supported a decade later when Iyengar and Kinder (1987), in controlled field experiments, linked television agenda-setting effects to evaluations of the U.S. president in a demonstration of what some cognitive psychologists have called “priming” – making certain issues or attributes more salient and more likely to be accessed in forming opinions.

The cognitive origins of priming are focused. Priming is a procedure to understand how information is represented in and retrieved from memory. The network models of memory (Roskos-Ewoldsen, 1997) assumes information is stored in memory in the form on nodes and each node represents a unique concept. Each node is connected to related nodes in memory by associative pathways (e.g., “human being” is linked to “family”, “community”, and perhaps to “responsibility”, etc). Each node has an “activation threshold” – if the node’s level of activation exceeds its threshold, the node will fire, and other related nodes will be activated.

The nature of priming comprises the accessibility of a concept when it is at rest, or prior to its being primed. If a concept is hypothesized to have an activation threshold, and a concept is activated in memory when its activation threshold is exceeded, then concepts can vary in how high their resting level of activity is compared with other thresholds. This means that concepts vary in how much additional activity is needed for them to fire. Those constructs that have “low activation thresholds” (i.e., high resting levels of activity relative to the threshold) are said to be highly accessible in memory. Conversely, concepts with “high activation thresholds” (i.e., low activity levels related to the threshold) take more energy to activate in memory. These concepts have low accessibility and come to mind with difficulty (Higgens, Bargh & Lombardi, 1985).

Social and developmental psychologists have used priming procedures as a way to identify the types of cognitive processes that may play a role in an individual perception, stereotyping, and attitude activation.

Graham and Hudley (1994) conducted an experiment in which middle school boys read a paragraph that portrayed interpersonal situations with negative outcomes. The variant was the role of the perpetrator, who either had control or no control of the situation. After completing a priming task, participants completed a second, seemingly unrelated study. The findings suggested a process whereby the negative outcome situations activated related concepts in memory, such as the idea that negative outcomes are always intentional.

Research on priming has demonstrated three important characteristics of priming. First, the effects of priming dissipate with time. Recent primes have more effect on judgments and behaviors than temporally distant primes. Second, primes that are stronger will tend to have stronger effects of people’s attitudes and behavior (Higgins, Bargh, & Lombardi, 1985). Third, primes tend to have stronger effects on situations that are ambiguous (Otten & Stapel, 2006).

Not all scholars agree priming is a consequence of agenda-setting. Price and Tewksbury (1997) have argued both agenda-setting and priming rely on the same cognitive process (the increased accessibility of mental constructs in long-term memory due to media exposure) and agenda-setting is one particular variant of priming.

Sheufele (2000) uses both terms synonymously when he writes “mass media have the power to increase levels of importance assigned to issues by audience members. They increase the salience of issues or the ease with which these considerations can be retrieved from memory if individuals have to make political judgments about political actors” (p. 309).

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