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Agenda Setting Theory and Practical Application

Agenda Setting Theory

Agenda Setting Theory is a communication theory that describes how the media influences the public’s perception and acceptability of specific topics. The public deems an issue important if the media covers it more frequently (Floyd et al., 2017). The truth is that the mass media is highly biased as the content shown on its platforms are that which it considers important. This phenomenon robs individuals of the ability to make objective judgments on mattes of public interest. The theory was developed by Maxwell and Donald, and basically, it explores the effect of how the mass media prioritizes news (Floyd et al., 2017). This is based on people’s thinking patterns and its potential to influence the audience in certain ways. The theory has two main levels: the first deals with the influence of the media on the people, and the second deals with the media’s focus on projected patterns of people’s thoughts regarding specific issues (West & Turner, 2014). Agenda setting is affected by many factors, including editors, managers, non-media sources, and gatekeepers McCombs, M. (2004).

Meaning

Agenda Setting Theory is a social science theory that focuses on the relationship between the coverage of news y mass media outlets and public’s perception of what issues matter the most in society. According to the theory, the media has a very powerful influence and public agenda, which is determined by its coverage of issues (Floyd et al., 2017). It is possible to deduce the media’s agenda from the type of content that is given priority. On the other hand, the public agenda can be defined by what issues people think are the most significant at any given time (West & Turner, 2014). In that regard, the mass shapes public agenda by giving certain issues greater coverage. People determine what matters constitute public agenda based on the degree of attention and importance that they are given by the media (West & Turner, 2014). In many instances, the public thinks about what the media instills in the and not what they want to think about. This demonstrates how powerful the influence of the media is toward the public. Priming and framing are two of the most common methods that the media uses to achieve their objective of influence. Through priming, the manipulate the public by giving a certain topic more coverage until the people embrace it as an important issue (Floyd et al., 2017). Framing involves selective control through which the media presents content through certain frames of reference that the public adopt and that shape their thinking. Originally, Agenda Setting research recognized the powerful influence of the media, but later refinements introduced the belief that the media has limited effects on people’s thinking patterns on specific issues.

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Invention

The invention of the Agenda Setting Theory can be divided into two main stages, namely pretheoretical conceptualization and the establishment period. Robert E. Park developed the concept of media gatekeeping, which forms part of the theory (West & Turner, 2014). According to park, media editors are gatekeepers because of their power to decide which stories are covered and which are discarded. He explored the concept of the stories that are publicized and those that do not become public. The pioneer of the pretheoretical stage was Walter Lippmann, an avid researcher of public opinion and propaganda. He argued that people’s images of key events is determined by how the media presents them (West & Turner, 2014). Harold Laswell introduced two concepts about the role of mass media, namely surveillance and correlation. Surveillance is the process of determining which stories to present to the public while correlation refers to the process of the media’s way of directing attention to certain issues or stories. All these ideas were brought together into a theory by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in 1972 (West & Turner, 2014). The Chapel Hill Study utilized a survey and a content analysis of the media’s coverage of the presidential campaigns in 1968. They used their findings to establish the relationship between what content was covered in the mass media and how they perceived the relevance of events. They hypothesized that the media agenda would gradually morph into the public agenda.

Development

The Agenda Setting Theory is founded on three main assumptions. First, the media uses its power and influence to establish an agenda to present to the public (West & Turner, 2014). In so doing, they pretend to be reflecting reality. However, they use their agenda to shape and filter reality for the public, thus manipulating them to think in a certain manner. Information is either include or excluded in stories in order to shape reality according to their wishes. Second, the media influences the public agenda by concentrating on those issues that form part of their agenda (West & Turner, 2014). In this way, certain issues are given coverage more than others in the mass media (Floyd et al., 2017). The policymakers’ agenda is consequently influenced by what the public focuses on, which is a product of the media’s manipulation through priming and framing. The gatekeeping function plays out in such a away that editors can choose to cover a story or discard it, depending on whether it forms part of their agenda (West & Turner, 2014). Third, influence can work inversely in that the public and the policymakers can influence the media too (West & Turner, 2014). The three elements are interrelated. Therefore, the public and the policymakers can exert pressure on the media so as to influence their agenda.

The first level of agenda setting involves the determination of the most important issues that will comprise the media’s agenda, and therefore, will receive more coverage. The second level is called media framing, and it refers to a process through which the media depicts the events on their agenda in order to influence their customers’ interpretations (West & Turner, 2014). The concept of framing was first explored by Todd Gitlin in 1980, during his evaluation of how the student movement of the 1960s was rendered weak and influence because of the way it was covered by CBS television. Framing can be achieved in deferent ways, depending on the type of media covering a story. Priming is a related concept that involves the temporary coverage of certain information that influences people’s thoughts at a later date. The process of setting agenda is divided into three steps. First, the media decides the priority of issues to be covered (Floyd et al., 2017). Second, the interaction of these issues with the people’s thoughts create the public agenda. Third, the policy agenda is established through the interaction between what the public and policymakers think is important. Agenda setting is affected by salience, the proportion to which an issue is perceived as important (West & Turner, 2014). A media agenda may be rejected due to its relevance and uncertainty.

Theory that Is Used in Studies

Since the Chapel Hill Study, several studies have been conducted about the agenda setting theory. Recent research has focused on its application to others areas of communication outside politics. For instance, it has been applied in advertising, business, and the legal system. Researchers mainly focus on the agenda setting power or influence of the media. in this regard, they explore how the media agenda morphs into the public agenda through selective coverage of issues (Carroll, 2015). They also explore the relationship between the three-step process of agenda setting: media agenda, public agenda, and policy agenda. Several studies have evaluated how the media applies the concepts of framing and priming in order to promote their agenda to the public. A study conducted by Neuman et al. (2014) evaluated the application of the theory in the contemporary world that is characterized the proliferation of digital data and expressive behaviors. Finally, they explore the effect of agenda setting on the public and policy agenda.

Practical Application

Originally, the theory was established within the setting of a presidential election, and subsequent studies have focused on the context. However, in contemporary studies, researchers have focused on its application within the brand community, advertising, legal systems, public relations, business news, and audience control (Johnson, 2014). In the business world, companies determine the type of information to present to the public based on the type of corporate image that they want to project (Carroll, 2015). Many businesses have media divisions whose main responsibility is to cover their values and CSR activities in an effort to enhance their public images (Carroll, 2015). The mass media can either destroy or build a company, depending on the type of content they present to the public (Johnson, 2014). Consumers are also manipulated through advertising as the process involves the application of the concepts of selection , omission, framing, and priming (Carroll, 2015). For example, during election campaigns, politicians only show their positive sides, and as a such, manipulate the electorate into thinking that they are ethical and capable leaders. The Clinton and Watergate are prime examples of the practical application of agenda setting theory in political communication. The two events were given so much coverage that they went viral. The Clinton scandal was blow out of proportion to a point of initiating a presidential impeachment against him. The Watergate scandal was also exaggerated in order to fit the media’s agenda. The coverage of crime stories usually elicit feelings of anxiety and fear among the public because the mas media makes them look important and widespread.

Organization of Information

Agenda Setting Theory is a communication theory that states that the media has the power to influence the people’s perspective regarding the importance of issues on the public agenda. It was developed by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in 1972. Pretheoretical conceptualization involved the works of Robert E park (media gatekeeping), Walter Lippmann (people’s images of events determined by media), and Harold Laswell (surveillance and correlation). They developed the theory form the findings of the “Chapel Hill Study” that focused on the media’s coverage of the 1968 presidential election campaigns. The theory is founded on three assumptions: the media uses its power and influence to establish an agenda to present to the public, the media influences the public agenda by concentrating on issues that form part of its agenda, and the public and the policymakers can influence the media too. Recent research has focused on its application to others areas of communication outside politics. For instance, it has been applied in advertising, business, and the legal system. Researchers mainly focus on the agenda setting power or influence of the media. In this regard, they explore how the media agenda morphs into the public agenda through selective coverage of issues (Carroll, 2015). In contemporary studies, researchers have focused on its application within the brand community, advertising, legal systems, public relations, business news, and audience control (Johnson, 2014).

References

Carroll, C. E. (2015). The handbook of communication and corporate reputation. Wiley Blackwell.

Floyd, K., Schrodt, P., Erbert, L. A., & Trethewey, A. (2017). Exploring communication theory: making sense of use. Routledge.

Johnson, T. J. (Ed.). (2014). Agenda setting in a 2.0 world: New agendas in communication. Routledge.

McCombs, M. (2004). Setting the agenda: the mass media and public opinion. Polity Press.

Neuman, W. R., Guggenheim, L., Jang, S. M., & Bae, S. Y. (2014). The dynamics of public attention: Agenda-setting theory meets big data. Journal of Communication 64(1), pp. 193-214.

West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2014). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application (6th ed.). McGraw Hill Education.

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