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Agenda-setting theory rests on the assumption that while most citizens depend on the news media for their political information, the media seem to have surprising little impact on actually alter ing voters’ attitudes about a given-issue. Instead, agenda-setting theory posits that the media’s power of persuasion is indirect in nature. According to Bernard Cohen in his 1963 book, The Press and Foreign Policy, even though “the press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about” (13). That is, by covering certain issues and ignoring others, the news media create a political agenda (i.e., determine what issues are important and what issues are not), which the public then internalizes as its own set of priorities. Thus, the media’s and the public’s agendas merge into one, so that what the media find to be noteworthy and in turn promote as important through news coverage is eventually mirrored by citizens.
Sociologists Kurt Lang and Gladys Engel Lang (1966), two of the pioneers of media effects research, put it this way: “The mass media force our attention onto certain issues by covering or promoting certain issues and individuals, which then suggests what we should think about, know about, have feelings about” (468). Or in the simplest of terms, try not to think about pink elephants after Good Morning America, the NBC Nightly News, 20/20, and Nightline all run news segments on them.
Although over a century ago journalist Walter Lippman captured the essence of agenda setting with his phrase “the world outside, and the pictures in our heads” (referring to the fact that people are more responsive to the pseudo-environment of mental images created by the media than they are to reality), early communication research focused on assessing direct media effects, not the more subtle indirect ones. Therefore, empirical confirmation of agenda-setting effects did not occur until the last few decades of the twentieth century. The classic agenda-setting study was conducted by Maxwell McCombs and Donald E. Shaw in 1972. McCombs and Shaw interviewed one hundred undecided voters in and around Chapel Hill, North Carolina, combining voters’ attitudes about various policy concerns with a content analysis of television and the print media’s coverage on those same issues. Though the authors found a strong correspondence between the media’s and the voters’ agendas, McCombs and Shaw could not fully support their conclusion that news coverage was shaping voters’ policy agendas over an alternative explanation: that the news media were simply successful in tailoring news coverage to reflect the actual issue interests of audience members. More research was needed.
Using experimentation, Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder presented strong evidence that the news media set the public agenda. In a series of experiments described in their now classic book, News That Matters (1987), the researchers manipulated media content, thereby controlling which issues participants were exposed to. Participants in the experiments were shown what they believed were regular newscasts from the 6 o’clock evening news, when in fact the newscasts had been carefully edited to include or omit specific stories. The results indicate classic agenda-setting effects. For example, participants who were exposed to stories about the inadequacy of funding for the U.S. military were more likely to consider this issue to be important, even though prior to the study they were unconcerned about military spending. For participants in the control condition—those who did not view the military spending story—the importance they assigned to military funding remained unchanged.
Agenda Setting And Priming
Agenda-setting effects are not limited to focusing the public’s attention on particular problems; they also can change the measures that people use to evaluate those issues. Iyengar and Kinder found evidence of a priming effect; that is, issues that the media stress become the issues that voters use to later evaluate political candidates. For instance, exposure to television stories that linked the economic downturn in the 1980s to the president’s performance primed viewers to use this standard of economic performance in their subsequent evaluations of the president. Thus, if the news media consistently suggest that an economic downturn is the result of poorly crafted presidential policy, the public will come to believe overwhelmingly that the president has caused that economic downturn. On the other hand, when television coverage discounts the president’s role in the state of the economy, so will viewers.
Therefore, by deciding what issues to cover, the media set the public agenda, which in turn influences the importance citizens ascribe to the reported issues. By elevating certain issues over others or “priming” those issues, the media influence citizens’ evaluations of political actors and alter the criteria by which political players are judged. That is, priming, as some political scientists use the term, causes a greater influential weight to be attached to an issue once it receives media coverage. Voters’ prior attitudes toward these issues are then more likely to predict their political candidate evaluations if they have been primed by the media. For example, attitudes in support of the Nicaraguan contras were twice as important in determining President Ronald Reagan’s popularity after media coverage of the Iran-Contra scandal than they were prior to coverage, as Jon Krosnick and Donald Kinder argued in 1990. Because the media emphasized the Iran-Contra affair, citizens’ evaluations of President Reagan were more likely to be based on this issue than others. The first is an example of media agenda setting; the second is an example of media priming.
While an overwhelming number of legitimate issues and ideas circulate at any one time, one of the major dilemmas journalists face is deciding what issues to cover and what not to cover, and how much coverage to devote to any given issue. As Michael Delli Carpini noted in 2005, “given the inherent constraints on covering everything of potential import, public journalists argue that citizens themselves, rather than (or in addition to) elites, should set the agenda.” Thus, a reversal of agenda setting occurs when journalists listen to citizens to understand what aspects of the social and political world are important to them.
In a comprehensive study of Britain’s 1997 general election campaign, Pippa Norris and her colleagues (1999) found that political parties, not citizens, set the agenda, thus limiting the power of the media to directly boost attention to an issue. A similar study by Heinz Brandenburg (2004) of the 2002 Irish election campaign found that political parties such as Fianna Fáil are the main agenda setters and that the media follow. Although media outlets such as The Irish Times also influenced party communications, these effects were small and infrequent. Thus, campaigns seem to foster different agenda setting dynamics.
In conclusion, most research to date has focused on either documenting the actual phenomenon of agenda setting or exploring the psychology of agenda setting—that is, the media’s impact on the public agenda and the subsequent consequences for citizens’ attitudes and opinions. For the most part, thirty years and more than 200 studies later, Bernard Cohen’s classic observation still holds true: “The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about” (1963, 13). And, to this we might add (in Cohen’s words) “that by altering citizens’ issue priorities and voters’ subsequent policy and vote choices, the media indirectly reshape the political landscape and ultimately the democratic process.”
- Brandenburg, Heinz. “Manipulating the Dimensions. A Comparative Study of Campaign Effects on Media Agenda Formation.” Paper presented at the European Consortium for Political Research Joint Sessions, Uppsala, Sweden, April 2004.
- Cohen, Bernard. The Press and Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963.
- Delli Carpini, Michael. “News from Somewhere: Journalistic Frames and the Debate over Public Journalism.” In Framing American Politics, edited by Karen Callaghan and Frauke Schnell, 21–53. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.
- Iyengar, Shanto, and Donald Kinder. News That Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
- Iyengar, Shanto, Donald Kinder, Mark D. Peters, and Jon A. Krosnick. “The Evening News and Presidential Evaluations.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 46 (1984): 778–787.
- Krosnick, Jon, and Donald Kinder. “Altering the Foundations of Support for the President through Priming.” American Political Science Review 84 (1990): 497–512.
- Lang, Kurt, and Gladys Engel Lang. “The Mass Media and Voting.” In Reader in Public Opinion and Communication, 2nd ed., edited by Bernard Berelson and Morris Janowitz, 455–472. New York: Free Press, 1966.
- Lippman,Walter. Public Opinion. New York: MacMillan, 1922.
- McCombs, Maxwell. “A Look at Agenda Setting: Past, Present, and Future.” Journalism Studies 6 (2005): 543–557.
- McCombs, Maxwell, and Donald E. Shaw. “The Agenda Setting Function of the Mass Media.” Public Opinion Quarterly 36 (1972): 176–187.
- Norris, Pippa, John Curtice, David Sanders, Margaret Scammell, and Holli A. Semetko. On Message: Communicating the Campaign. London: Sage, 1999.
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