The 2000 Presidential Elections are upon us and who do we turn to for information regarding the candidates? What issues will be the hot topics for the election race? For that matter, what will be the hot topics in the media for next week? Just as this paper must be structured, organized, and center around a main idea, so must all information presented to an audience. Information can only be easily processed if it contains some kind of structure. This includes the information that is provided by the media. The media have to structure their ideas and stories on a daily, weekly, and even monthly basis. This process is known as agenda setting. Television, radio, and print medias all use agenda setting, but what about a new media, such as the Internet?
Lets begin by understanding agenda setting and its place in mass media theory. The early ideas of agenda setting have been around for decades. Lippmann made reference to the first ideas of agenda setting in his book Public Opinion. He spoke about how the information of the world is much too vast to comprehend without simplifying it (Baran 299). This can be interpreted as receivers of information need to have a structured, well-defined scheme of information. This structured, well-defined scheme of information causes the media to pick and choose information that it feels is relevant to the audience. This is where agenda setting presents itself. Agenda setting is the idea that the media choose topics that it thinks are important and focuses its broadcasts around this topic.
McCombs and Shaw fully developed the theory of agenda setting in respect to public agenda in a study in the early 1970s. Their cross-sectional study involved the effects of media agenda setting on public opinion. They revealed that there were indeed correlations between the two, which backed the ideas of Cohen (Brosius 5). They derived that, the basic agenda-setting hypothesis asserts that the issues and information presented on the media agenda become over time the issues and information on the public agenda (Leckenby).
This brings us to the two factors that influence an audience when presenting information through a media: the vividness of presentation and the position of a story (Baran 302). These factors, along with others, induce the audience to feel as if a particular story has important issues within the story. The relative importance of these issues is defined as salience (Leckenby). The salience of an issue determines to what degree of importance the audience and the media place on a particular story. The salience of a story in agenda setting determines the salience of the issues within the public agenda (Leckenby).
The vividness of presentation is one way to raise the level of salience of an issue. A story that is presented with graphic detail can cause the public perception of the issue involved to greatly increase. If a story is sensationalized by the media, the audience will unconsciously attach themselves to that particular topic. A story that shows graphic details and pictures of the events of that story cause people to feel as if they were a part of that event. For example, pictures of the crash of Flight 800 stick in the audiences mind. This leads the audience to believe that the crash of Flight 800 is an essential story that we must learn more about. The problem with this is that the audience sometimes focuses too heavily on the story to see the issue at hand. This can negatively affect the medias agenda setting power because the story is too detailed for the audience to see the issue behind the story (Baran 302).
The position of a story also affects the salience of an issue. If an article on gun violence in schools is on the front page of The Washington Post, the audience perceives that particular story as having great importance within the scheme of current news topics. Since the audience deems the cover story as more newsworthy than the missing cat on page 12, the audience will believe that gun violence in schools is a crucial, contemporary issue. This causes the public to set gun violence in schools as a current public agenda (Baran 302).
The theory of agenda setting has its positives and negatives. The theory itself is relevant to the way our society perceives critical social issues. Every time there is an airplane crash, the media jump to reveal the story. They describe all of the details surrounding the crash. The focus might be on that one particular airplane crash, but the media associate other airplane crashes with the one they are already focusing on. This causes the majority of the newscast to be devoted to airplane crashes. This particular agenda that the media has set has now become the main concern for the public. The public literally feels as though there is an epidemic of plane crashes.
However, there are also negative aspects to the agenda-setting theory. Critics dissent that the theory is too situational specific. It seems to only be rooted in news and political campaigns (Baran 303). I disagree. I feel that agenda setting is relevant in all forms of mass media to a certain degree. In radio, although it is not relevant in setting certain tastes in music format, it does set standards for what the public deem as popular. When a radio station plays a certain song, it is very well received by the listener. In conclusion, this can be thought of as a form of agenda setting because the radio station is setting public opinion through their choice of music.
The one problem that I see with agenda-setting theory is the problem of the chicken and the egg. Which comes first. Do the media set agendas that the public incorporate into their scheme of public agenda or do the public establish their own agenda only to have the media reinforce their beliefs through agenda setting? An example of this would be when the media report an event and the public begins to want more. In turn, the media begin to agenda-set according to the publics interest in this issue. To clarify, in Spotsylvania last year, there were three abductions and homicides of teenage girls. The publics local interest in this matter precluded the local news to agenda-set on this hot topic issue. This was clearly a case of the publics agenda influencing the medias.
This problem is addressed with the agenda building theory. The agenda building theory is a circular process combining the media, the government, and the public. It defines that there is not only one institution that stimulates public agenda, but that it is a collective effort of all three. Another example of this would be when the NAACP imposed a ban on the tourist industry because of the display of the Confederate Flag over the South Carolina Capitol Building. The NAACP initiated the focus on the Confederate Flag and then the media incorporated this issue in its agenda setting.
Agenda setting is evident in a variety of media. But what about the newest media, the Internet? As the Internet becomes an ever-present media, it becomes a new test for the agenda setting theory. The Internet is a vast source of information. It, like any other media, contains both factual and embellished information. It is much more immediate than other medias; however, it is only available to approximately twenty percent of the public within Canada and the United States (Weise 162).
The Internet contains information at the drop of a dime. At any particular time, one can attain countless information on practically any issue. However, as with any media, there is a section of false, misleading information. This as can be found with any media, there are valid and misleading sources. The valid sources are easily identifiable, such as sites like USA Today, NBC, and a host of others. This problem with valid sources stems from the Internets ability to allow anyone and everyone to post information. I could post information about the Monica Lewinsky Scandal proposing that she also had an affair with Hillary. So, as you see, it is fairly easy to receive false information. The way to combat this is to, like any other media, check your sources.
The big positive of the Internet is its ability to provide immediate information. The Dallas Morning News posted an interview with Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh on the web prior to publishing it in print nearly seven hours later (Weise 160). Now, instead of journalists running to the phones to report on an issue, they run to their laptops.
The coorelation between agenda setting and the Internet parallels that of other media. Just as television spawned the invention of agenda setting theory, the Internet will help to give theorists another venue to test their hypotheses. The conclusion I draw from being an avid user of the Internet is that it poses little difference to the conclusions drawn from other media regarding the subject of agenda setting. I think that is what makes the theory so strong. It can substitute any media and still come up with the same conclusions.
This is evident in the browser companies such as AOL. AOL uses a system similar to that of print media to portray important stories. The opening screen of AOL contains the top stories that they deem as hot topics.
focusing on agenda setting within the media of television. Television
The media is an institution that works through the circular process. We tell it what is important to us, and it tells us what we should deem as important. The media is an institution, run by the people for the people, that keep us informed. It brings us stories from distant places and reveals to us what we can not personally witness. The all powerful media is a huge part of our lives. With all of this in mind, we must consider the process of agenda setting. A process which is used unrelentlessly on television.
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