Agenda Setting Theory


Bernard Cohen famously wrote in his 1963 book, The Press and Foreign Policy, that journalistic media “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.”

Although that statement came before the formalization of agenda-setting theory, it aptly captures its essence: Even if journalistic outlets have a limited ability to shape their audiences’ attitudes toward an issue, they nevertheless exert influence over how important the issue is perceived to be by those audiences. (That perceived importance may be very different from the actual importance of that issue according to other measures.)

While agenda-setting theory and framing theory both address the potential impact of journalistic media coverage, they are very different. Agenda-setting theory focuses on the relationship between media coverage and the perceived importance of an issue, while framing theory connects media coverage to the formation of attitudes toward those issues.

Agenda-Setting Theory

In a nutshell, agenda setting refers to the process by which mass media — including journalistic media — present certain issues (e.g., gun violence) frequently and prominently, with the result being that large segments of the public come to perceive those issues as being more important than others.

The central causal mechanism is a very simple one: The more media attention an issue receives (issue salience), the more important it is perceived to be (by audiences). For example, if there is sustained journalistic coverage of immigration over the course of a few months, then news consumers will think that immigration is an important issue at that point in time — even if they don’t have strong opinions about it.

Although the term ‘agenda-setting theory’ may be seen to imply a conspiratorial effort to manipulate public opinion, this is far from the case. It simply reflects twin processes: First, journalistic media are bound by time and space. For example, an evening news broadcast often has just 22 minutes to transmit information about the day’s most important issues and events. This forces journalists to focus on specific issues and simplify them, and thus make decisions about what they believe matters most to the audiences they serve. Even with a news website, where space and time to cover a topic are less restricted and an online editor could theoretically cram 500 stories on the homepage, journalists must still make decisions about how to organize the information they publish. Indeed, the decision about which story to place at the top of a website’s homepage offers a salience cue — it is placed first because it is presumed to be the most important story.

The second process occurs on the audience side: Audiences turn to journalistic media because they have a need for orientation, or a desire to understand new or emerging situations. That need for orientation, in turn, is impacted by two elements: relevance and uncertainty. Relevance pertains to the question, “Do I think this issue is personally or socially important to me?” Uncertainty pertains to the question, “Do I feel I lack the information I need about this topic?” When both relevance and uncertainty are high, audience members pay greater attention to journalistic outlets’ cues about salience, and thus the resulting agenda-setting effect is stronger.

Similarly, when the issue at question is unobtrusive — that is, it is an issue people have little to no personal experience with, such as international affairs — then they are more likely to rely on media cues for assessing the importance of that issue. This may be countered by certain contextual factors, though. For example, scholars have found that agenda-setting effects are weaker in closed media systems (those tightly controlled by governments) with the idea being that people trust those journalistic media less. They thus actively seek out other sources of information and draw even more upon personal assessments.

Agenda-setting effects are therefore not uniform or universal. They are instead dependent on the context. Indeed, as Cohen wrote about the relationship between journalistic media and foreign affairs, “the world will look different to different people depending on the map that is drawn for them by writers, editors, and publishers of the paper they read.”

Intermedia Agenda Setting

Journalistic outlets do not just influence ordinary citizens, politicians, and the like. They also influence one another. Within the context of agenda-setting, we refer to the process by which journalistic media influence one another as intermedia agenda-setting.

The core argument for this hypothesis is that just as regular citizens turn to trusted journalistic outlets for cues about what is important, journalistic outlets themselves turn to other journalistic media that they perceive to be leaders within a given context. For example, The New York Times may cover a story about U.S. troops withdrawing from Syria, which leads a local newspaper to perceive that to be an important issue and thus devote resources to covering a local angle about the same topic (e.g., covering local families who might have a spouse or child returning home from deployment).

This has led to a broader argument that audiences have historically developed reasonably consistent perceptions of which issues are most important at a given point in time because journalistic outlets generally follow similar issue agendas. This does not mean that they all cover the exact same issues, and certainly not in the same way. Instead, it contends that dominant coverage patterns often emerge across media — such as a period of intense and widespread journalistic coverage of climate change, before that attention wanes and the issue later re-emerges as a priority — and that many people within similar contexts will often identify similar sets of issues as being “important” at a given point in time.

Intermedia agenda-setting has required some reconceptualization in recent years, though, because the news ecology has become more complex. The perspective was initially proposed during a time when traditional media dominated audience attention. This is no longer the case, as niche and alternative media have grown immensely — leading to more specialized information sources — and social media have transformed the ways people engage with news.

As such, while elite journalistic outlets like The New York Times may still shape the initial perception of issues and their import, active audiences will blend messages from a greater range of journalistic and non-journalistic media. This ostensibly weakens the Times’ agenda-setting power. Additionally, the transformation of the distribution of news — which is also more social today — and the emergence of new ways for audiences to engage with journalistic actors has enabled those active audiences to increasingly shape media agendas themselves.

Key Takeaways

  • Agenda-setting theory proposes that issues that receive relatively more media attention tend to be perceived by audiences as being relatively more important.

  • Framing theory shares some conceptual similarities with agenda-setting theory, but they differ in that agenda-setting emphasizes the relationship between media coverage and the perceived importance of an issue, while framing theory connects coverage to attitude formation.

  • The magnitude of an agenda-setting effect depends on the context. Agenda-setting effects are neither uniform nor universal.

  • Journalistic outlets do not just influence ordinary citizens and politicians; they influence fellow journalistic actors. They can therefore create a feedback loop.