Agenda Setting Media Theory

The argument that television news and other genres such as documentaries and current affairs straightforwardly transmit an obviously biased view of the world has been rejected in most quarters of media studies. Nevertheless, while the majority acknowledge that television has no overt, direct and unambiguous effects, research has focused on the idea that television can ‘set the agenda’. In other words, just as the agenda of meetings is set with more important items placed prominently on the agenda, television programmes can help define the boundaries of what audiences talk about and think. By the same token, other texts and meanings, for instance radical political views or more explicit sexual imagery, may be kept off the agenda. It is argued that television is especially vulnerable to those wishing to set the agenda because audiences, given the predetermined quality of the text and narrative, have less opportunity to structure their consumption in the way that newspaper readers can. This implies that agenda-setting is always covert or taken for granted. Certainly research on television news has backed this up (see, for instance, Glasgow University Media Group, 1976, for a seminal example) but broadcasters, as with the early BBC, may be open in their intent to structure the agenda in ‘our’ interests.

The-Agenda-Setting-Function-TheoryThe concept of agenda-setting can be applied to any genre, including, for example, the ability of MTV and other music video networks to set a pop music agenda. However, it is in the field of television news that it has gained particular currency. News programmes, it is asserted, are able to set the agenda in choice and ordering of items, by the privileging of one voice before another, in more or less combative interviewing techniques, in allocation of ‘the last word’, and in any number of other techniques embedded in the everyday practices of the profession. Some journalists reject this position claiming that they simply select what is most significant on any given day or even that they have ‘an eye for a story’. But this undervalues the ability of news and other professionals to shape texts. In particular it ignores the ‘gatekeeping’ role of editors, producers and others who make day-to-day decisions about media content. It also neglects the degree to which news programmes globally have become dependent on an agenda set by the agencies, such as Reuters and Associated Press, which supply pre-packaged news and film for television companies around the world. Agenda-setting is never, though, a question of news professionals determining what will be said and thought. They do have an influence but their agendas are set in a wider context of ‘what is happening’ in the world, deadlines, availability of film, and the existence of ‘news values’, those occupational codes used in the social construction of news stories.

Marxists have been concerned about the operation of a hidden agenda. The organisation of, say, a news programme seems normal and natural but they have argued that the selection, construction and presentation of news veils efforts to promulgate a dominant ideology. Democracy is therefore illusory because news, current affairs and documentaries act on behalf of the capitalist state to limit debate and discussion. So, news coverage might set an agenda concentrating on the events of a war rather than its political origins and propriety or one which confines election coverage solely to mainstream political parties. The result is seen as the perpetuation of an agenda sympathetic to the ruling group. Watson (1998) describes a more complex model which identifies agendas belonging to various agencies. These include a policy agenda developed by governments and politicians, the media agenda of television (and other media) professionals, a corporate agenda and a public or audience agenda. This more pluralist model moves away from the idea of a single agenda set by very specific professional or political groups, acknowledging the possibility of alliances between social forces in the development of an agenda.

Discussion of agenda-setting has tended to become embroiled in much wider debates about the media’s ability, not simply to generate a restricted spectrum of meanings but to ensure that those meanings are addressed and even believed by audiences. There is now a considerable body of research, particularly in the United States, that suggests the media’s ability to set the agenda can often be a powerful influence on audiences. From the 1960s onwards, studies have repeatedly shown that public opinion often follows the dominant agenda reflected in news coverage, and not the other way round. This is particularly striking in those instances where the volume of news coverage has little to do with the scale of the problembeing reported. So, for example, public concern about the environment tends to reflect media attention to environmental problems, and yet the degree of media attention to the environment has little to do with overall trends in levels of pollution or threats to the environment. Similarly public concern about drugs in the United States went from 3 per cent to over 50 per cent and back down to 3 per cent in the space of a decade, shifts that directly followed increases and decreases in media coverage but that had little to do with the incidence of drug abuse or drug-related crime.

The more dramatic examples of agenda-setting involve incidence of what are called ‘moral panics’. This involves an upward spiral of concern, in which increases in news coverage prompt responses from politicians and other elites (who are keen to be seen to be responsive), and the media’s coverage of this elite response creates even more media interest. When public concern begins to reflect media coverage, this ups the stakes still further, and political elites and the news media then appear to be responding to public opinion, until action is taken to ‘deal’ with the problem. The first major study of a ‘moral panic’ involved the ‘mugging crisis’ of the 1970s, documenting a period in which little changed in terms of crime levels (Hall et al, 1978), and yet media interest in the ‘new’ crime of mugging led to just such an upward spiral, with very real consequences in terms of judicial sentencing policy and police operations.

Initially, agenda-setting research was based on the premise that the media might not tell you what to think, but they do tell you what to think about. In recent years, this distinction has proved untenable, as it has become clearer that what we think about influences what we think. So, for example, the approval ratings of political leaders will often be influenced by which issues dominate the news agenda. The information we receive, in other words, will provide the building blocks on which our opinions are constructed.
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Source: Television Studies The Key Concepts Bernadette Casey, Neil Casey, Ben Calvert, Liam French and Justin Lewis Routledge 2002
Further reading:
Hall et al. (1978); Iyengar and Kinder (1987); McCombs (1981); McQuail and Windahl
(1993); Rogers and Dearing (1987); Watson (1998)

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