MSM Uses The Agenda-Setting Theory

“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.”
—Bernard C. Cohen, 1963 [1]

The Agenda-setting theory is the theory that the mass-news media have a large influence on audiences by their choice of what stories to consider newsworthy and how much prominence and space to give them.

Agenda-setting theory’s central axiom is salience transfer, or the ability of the mass media to transfer importance of items on their mass agendas to the public agendas.


The Media Agenda is the set of issues addressed by media sources and the public agenda which are issues the public consider important (Miller, 2005). Agenda-setting theory was introduced in 1972 by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in their ground breaking study of the role of the media in 1968 presidential campaign in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. [2]

The theory explains the correlation between the rate at which media cover a story and the extent that people think that this story is important. This correlation has been shown to occur repeatedly.

In the dissatisfaction of the magic bullet theory, Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw introduced agenda-setting theory in the Public Opinion Quarterly. The theory was derived from their study that took place in Chapel Hill, NC, where the researchers surveyed 100 undecided voters during the 1968 presidential campaign on what they thought were key issues and measured that against the actual media content.

The ranking of issues was almost identical. The conclusions matched their hypothesis: The mass media positioned the agenda for public opinion by emphasizing specific topics (Hamm, 1998). Subsequent research on agenda-setting theory provided evidence for the cause-and-effect chain of influence being debated by critics in the field.

One particular study made leaps to prove the cause-effect relationship. The study was conducted by Yale researchers, Shanto Iyengar, Mark Peters, and Donald Kinder. The researchers had three groups of subjects fill out questionnaires about their own concerns and then each group watched different evening news programs, each of which emphasized a different issue.

After watching the news for four days, the subjects again filled out questionnaires and the issues that they rated as most important matched the issues they viewed on the evening news (Griffin, 2005). The study demonstrated a cause-and-effect relationship between media agenda and public agenda. Since the theory’s conception, more than 350 studies have been performed to test the theory.

The theory has evolved beyond the media’s influence on the public’s perceptions of issue salience to political candidates and corporate reputation (Carroll & McCombs, 2003).

Important Aspects of Theory

Functions of Theory
The agenda-setting function has multiple components

  1. Media Agenda – issues discussed in the media (newspapers, television, radio)

  2. Public Agenda – issues discussed and personally relevant to members of the public

  3. Policy Agenda – issues that policy makers consider important (legislators)

  4. Corporate Agenda – issues that big business and corporations consider important (corporate)

These four agendas are interrelated.

Two basic assumptions underlie most research on agenda-setting:

  1. the press and the media do not reflect reality, they filter and shape it

  2. media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues


  • Characteristics: research has focused on characteristics of audience, the issues, and the media that might predict variations in the agenda setting effect.

  • Need for Orientation: Research done by Weaver in 1977 suggested that individuals vary on their need for orientation. Need for orientation is 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 need for orientation. So the individual would be considerably likely to be influenced by the media stories (psychological aspect of theory) (Miller, 2005).

  • Issue Obtrusiveness: Research performed by Zucker (1978) suggested that an issue is obtrusive if most members of the public have had direct contact with it, and less obtrusive if audience members have not had direct experience. This means that agenda setting results should be strongest for unobtrusive issues because audience members must rely on media for information on these topics (Miller, 2005).

Various Levels of Agenda Setting

  • First-level agenda setting This is the level that is most traditionally studied by researchers. In this level the media use objects or issues to influence the public. In this level the media suggest what the public should think about (amount of coverage).

  • Second-level agenda setting. In this level the media focuses on the characteristics of the objects or issues. In this level the media suggest how the people should think about the issue.

    There are two types of attributes:

    • cognitive (sustentative, or topics)

    • affective (evaluative, or positive, negative, neutral)

  • Intermedia agenda setting (salience transfer among the media)

    (Coleman and Banning 2006; Lee 2005; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996)

Important Concepts

  • Gatekeeping – Control over the selection of content discussed in the media; what the public know and care about at any given time is mostly a product of media gatekeeping.

  • Priming – Effects of particular, prior context on retrieval and interpretation of information. The media’s content will provide a lot of time and space to certain issues, making these issues more accessible and vivid in the public’s mind (Miller, 2005).

  • Framing – Framing is a process of selective control over media content or public communication. Framing defines how a certain piece of media content is packaged so it will influence particular interpretations. This is accomplished through the use of selection, emphasis, exclusion, and elaboration. This is central to second-level agenda setting.

Usage of Theory

  • political advertising

  • political campaigns and debates

  • business news and corporate reputation (Carroll & McCombs, 2003)

  • business influence on federal policy (Berger, 2001)

  • legal systems, trials (Ramsey & McGuire, 2000)

  • role of groups, audience control, public opinion

  • public relations (Carroll & McCombs, 2003)

Strengths of Theory

  • It has explanatory power because it explains why most people prioritize the same issues as important.

  • It has predictive power because it predicts that if people are exposed to the same media, they will feel the same issues are important.

  • It can be proven false. If people aren’t exposed to the same media, they won’t feel the same issues are important.

  • Its meta-theoretical assumptions are balanced on the scientific side.

  • It lays groundwork for further research.

  • It has organizing power because it helps organize existing knowledge of media effects.


  • Media users may not be as ideal as the theory assumes. People may not be well-informed, deeply engaged in public affairs, thoughtful and skeptical. Instead, they may pay only casual and intermittent attention to public affairs and remain ignorant of the details.

  • For people who have made up their minds, the effect is weakened.

  • News media cannot create or conceal problems, they may only alter the awareness, priorities and salience people attached to a set of problems.

  • Research has largely been inconclusive in establishing a causal relationship between public salience and media coverage.


1. Bernard C. Cohen, The Press and Foreign Policy, p. 120, Princeton University press, 1963
2. Maxwell McCombs, Donald Shaw, ‘
The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass-Media‘, in The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 2. (Summer, 1972), pp. 176-187.