Agenda Setting Theory

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Description of Agenda Setting Theory. Explanation.


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Agenda Setting Theory (Source: McQuail & Windahl, 1993)

Definition Agenda Setting Theory. Description.

Agenda Setting Theory is a mass communication theory that holds the media have the ability to advise or tell audiences what issues are major and relevant, thus setting the 'agenda'. They can achieve this by choosing what stories to consider newsworthy and how much prominence and space they give them.

The Agenda Setting Theory has been first formulated by Maxwell McCombs and Don Shaw, Journalism Professors at the University of North Carolina, in the period of 1968-1976. At that time, the two authors were empirically researching American Presidential election focused on audience awareness and information. They successfully attempted to find links between what was relevant for the voters and information provided by mass media.

Key hypothesis of Agenda Setting Theory are:

  1. The role of mass media, particularly news media, is to provide filtered information in order to create a distorted view of reality.
  2. Media focus on certain issues depicting them as more important than others because they want the public opinion to perceive them as more important.

Unlike previous mass communication theories, like the Hypodermic Needle Theory, Persuasion Theory, Two Step Flow Model and the Limited Effects Theory, the concept of agenda setting analyzes cumulative or long term media effects on individuals and society. See also: Cultivation Theory and Dependence Theory. And, as also contemporary theories such as Uses and Gratifications Theory, Play Theory and Spiral of Silence, Agenda Setting narrows the field of possible effects of mass communication.

In fact, according Bernard Cohen, author of the book “The Press and Foreign Policy”, the main media effect is to set the agenda of the public opinion, so “what to think about” and not “what to think” (as in the case of Framing) as was previously supposed. Media pretend to provide audiences with the most relevant food for thought while having little power to influence existing opinions and behaviors even on the most debated topics. In this perspective, the only influence media can exert is to giving some arguments of a certain topic to create a mental framework in their audiences. Thus mass communication can hit individuals’ cognitive encyclopedia. In other words, media modify information and knowledge available to individuals setting the priority of topics. This effect is known in media studies and communication literature as the salience transfer. The agenda power of the press is more long-term oriented, the one of TV tends to simplify and “spotlight” it right now.

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