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Agenda Setting, Media Effects on

Maxwell McCombs, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA


2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Abstract

Agenda setting explicates Walter Lippmanns thesis in Public Opinion that the news media are a major link between the world
outside and the pictures in our heads. In the decades since the seminal Chapel Hill study, evidence of this media inuence has
been found worldwide for public issues, perceptions of public gures, and other topics. This evidence also explicates the
underlying psychology of these agenda-setting effects and the consequences of these media effects for attitudes, opinions, and
behavior.

The news media have a major inuence on the focus of public was a strategic decision about the most likely setting for media
attention, the specic issues that members of the public regard effects because the conventional wisdom of the time held that
as most priority at any moment. Beyond this inuence, the the media had little impact on the public due to their selective
news media also direct our attention to specic aspects of these exposure to compatible political messages (Klapper, 1960).
issues. This combined inuence of the news media on the McCombs and Shaw reasoned that selective exposure should
publics attention to and learning the key details of the major be minimal among undecided voters and a more likely setting
issues of the day is referred to as the agenda-setting role of the for media effects.
news media. In the Chapel Hill study and subsequent research, the media
The intellectual father of agenda-setting theory is Walter agenda is dened by the pattern of news coverage over a period
Lippmann, whose book, Public Opinion (1922), began with of several weeks. Systematic content analysis reveals which
a chapter titled The world outside and the pictures in our issue receives the most coverage, which the second most
heads. The central thesis of the book is that the news media are coverage, etc. In other words, the issues in the news can be rank-
the primary bridge between the vast array of events in the ordered according to the amount of coverage that they receive.
external world and the truncated views of these events in our The public agenda most often is determined by the long-
minds. As Lippmann noted, our opinions and behavior are standing Gallup Poll question, What is the most important
a response to these pictures in our heads, not the larger outside problem facing this country today? The aggregate responses to
world. this question or similar measures of the perceived importance
Nearly half a century later, during the 1968 US presidential of the issues of the day also can be rank-ordered from most to
election, Lippmanns observations were the basis of the least frequent.
seminal Chapel Hill study (McCombs and Shaw, 1972) that In Chapel Hill, McCombs and Shaw compared the salience
introduced the theory of agenda setting. The core concepts of of ve major issues dening the media agenda with the public
this theoretical metaphor are a media agenda, a public agenda, agenda among undecided voters and found a near-perfect
and the transfer of salience of the items on the media agenda to match in their rank-order (0.97, where the maximum value
the public agenda. In agenda-setting theory, salience refers to of this correlation coefcient used to index the strength of
the prominence and perceived importance of items in the news. agenda-setting effects is 1.0). The empirical correlations
The term agenda as it is used here is a neutral descriptive term, among general populations are somewhat lower. A year-long
quite the opposite from its meaning in the phrase to have an study during the 1976 US Presidential campaign found
agenda. The transfer of salience from the media agenda to the a peak correlation of 0.63 between the television agenda and
public agenda is the inadvertent by-product of the necessity of the public agenda during the spring primaries (Weaver et al.,
the news media to focus their attention on a small number of 1981). In the 1995 local elections in Pamplona, Spain
topics at any particular point in time. In other words, agenda- (McCombs, 2014), there were substantial matches between the
setting effects are an incidental result of peoples use of the public agenda and the agendas of both local newspapers
news media. However, as we shall see, the strength of these (0.90 and 0.72, respectively) and television news (0.66).
agenda-setting effects can vary considerably. The public are not Wanta and Ghanems (2000) meta-analysis of agenda-setting
a tabula rasa waiting to be programmed by the media. studies found a typical correlation of 0.55 between the
media agenda and the public agenda.
There are now hundreds of empirical studies worldwide
Comparing Media and Public Agendas documenting agenda-setting effects. These studies have exam-
ined the presentation of a wide variety of public issues and
To test the central assertion of agenda-setting theory that the a handful of other topics by various combinations of news-
media agenda sets the public agenda, the Chapel Hill study papers, television, and other communication media and the
compared the salience of ve major issues dening the media publics response to these media agendas in both election and
agenda with the salience of these issues on the public agenda of nonelection settings in Asia, Europe, Australia, and South
undecided voters. The focus on undecided voters in Chapel Hill America, as well as in the USA and Canada. For rigorous tests of

International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Volume 1 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.95007-4 351
352 Agenda Setting, Media Effects on

agenda-setting theorys assertion of a causal link between the do the attributes of these objects. When the media present an
media agenda and the public agenda that is, the media object and when the public thinks about and talks about an
agenda sets the public agenda these effects also have been object some attributes are emphasized. Others are mentioned
produced in controlled laboratory experiments (Althaus and less frequently, some only in passing.
Tewksbury, 2002; Conway and Patterson, 2008; Iyengar and Just as there is an agenda of objects, there is an agenda of
Kinder, 1987). attributes for each of these objects, an agenda on which the
In the new media landscape, a wide variety of Internet attributes can be rank-ordered according to their frequency of
channels have joined the chorus of media voices and demon- appearance. The inuence of the media on the relative salience
strate agenda-setting effects among the public similar to those of these objects among the public is the rst level of agenda
found over the decades for newspapers and television (Tran, setting. The inuence of the media on the relative salience of
2014). With this vast expansion and transformation of the these objects attributes is the second level of agenda setting.
communication landscape, some observers have predicted the Images of political leaders among the public afford exam-
diminution, if not the actual disappearance, of agenda-setting ples of attribute agenda setting (McCombs, 2014). In the 1994
effects on the scale that we have observed them over the past mayoral election in Taipei, Taiwan, the correlations ranged
half century (Chaffee and Metzger, 2001). Despite the popu- from 0.59 to 0.78 for six comparisons between voters
larity of speculation on this possibility, the overwhelming images of the three candidates their attribute agenda and
preponderance of the evidence to date suggests that the agenda- news coverage of these attributes the attribute agenda in two
setting role of the communication media endures. major daily newspapers. Here the substantive attributes of
Although there is divergence in the contemporary media- these candidates included personal qualities, such as ability,
use patterns among different generations, two statewide experience, and political style, as well as nonpolitical attributes,
surveys in the US found little difference in agenda-setting such as personality, integrity, and speaking ability.
effects among the younger, middle, and older generations Beyond the substantive attributes of a candidate or other
(Coleman and McCombs, 2007). Greater attention to the object in the news the specic traits or characteristics that
Internet and much less attention to traditional media among describe the object of attention there is a second dimension
younger adults had little impact on agenda setting. Particularly of the attribute agenda, the affective tone associated with each
compelling is the comparison in Louisiana of the issue agendas substantive attribute. When the media and the public describe
of low and high Internet users to the issue agenda of the states an object in terms of its substantive attributes, these attributes
major newspapers. For low Internet users, the correlation with are presented in positive, negative, or neutral terms.
the newspaper agenda is 0.90. For high Internet users, the In the 1996 Spanish general election, both the media
correlation is 0.70. attribute agendas and the public attribute agendas for these
Both the strength of agenda-setting effects in past decades candidates were organized in terms of both their substantive
and their continuing strength in the contemporary media and affective dimensions. In this demanding test of attribute
setting result from long-standing patterns of behavior in the agenda-setting effects, there was substantial correspondence
media and among the public. The high degree of homogeneity between the news coverage in seven news media of the three
among media agendas found in the original Chapel Hill major candidates and their images among Pamplona voters.
investigation continues in contemporary settings (Boczkowski, In the analysis, the combination of ve substantive categories
2010). Among the public, strong agenda-setting effects across and three levels of affect resulted in a 5  3 matrix describing
the population result from civic osmosis, the continuous each candidates attribute agenda. For six comparisons of the
exposure to a vast sea of information from many channels of voters attribute agendas for each of the three candidates with
communication (McCombs, 2012; Stromback and Kiousis, the attribute agendas of two local newspapers, the median
2010; Webster and Ksiazek, 2012). For most people, this correlation was 0.70. For six comparisons with two national
exposure ranges from habitual and deliberate attention to newspapers, the median correlation was 0.81, and for six
some news channels to incidental exposure to other news comparisons with two national TV news services it was 0.52.
channels in the course of daily life. In tandem with the Attribute agenda setting also occurs with public issues
homogeneity of these news channels, the outcome is a high (McCombs, 2014). Some aspects of issues are emphasized in
degree of consensus on the major issues of the day. the news and in how people think and talk about issues. Other
aspects are less salient. News coverage in Japanese newspapers
about global environmental problems in the months prior to
A Second Level of Agenda-Setting Effects the 1992 United Nations Rio de Janeiro conference resulted in
a steady increase in public agreement with the media agenda.
Agenda-setting theory focused initially on the objects dening In February, the match was 0.68 and by April, 0.78.
the media and public agendas. The term object is used here A similar pattern was found during a 3-week period prior to
with the same meaning as the term attitude object in social a local tax election in the USA. Correspondence between the
psychology. In agenda setting, the objects most frequently voters attribute agenda, the relative salience of various aspects
studied are public issues and political gures. However, any set of the issue, and the local newspapers framing of the local tax
of objects that is of interest can be analyzed, such as institu- increased from 0.40 to 0.65. The match with the political
tions, corporations, or brands of goods. Moving beyond the advertising on the issue increased from 0.80 to 0.95.
focus on objects, media messages about public issues and other A longitudinal study of a Swiss referendum on changing the
objects include descriptions of these objects. In abstract terms, countrys political asylum law also found strong attribute
objects have attributes. Just as these objects vary in salience, so agenda-setting effects evolving among persons reporting heavy
Agenda Setting, Media Effects on 353

reliance on newspapers and TV for public affairs information. 0.65. Similar correlations were found when the attribute
By the third wave of interviewing, the match between the agendas of each of the four candidates were analyzed sepa-
medias attribute agenda and the publics attribute agenda was rately. Using the statistical technique of network analysis to
0.92. The news media have a signicant inuence on both analyze the pattern of bundled attributes on the media agenda
object salience and attribute salience. and the public agenda that is, an investigation of third-level
agenda-setting effects the correlation was 0.67, a result
that is statistically very similar to the original analysis. Of
Exploring a Third Level of Agenda-Setting Effects course, the networked representations of these agendas are
a much richer picture of these attributes. These results from the
Returning to Lippmanns phrase the pictures in our heads, bundled 2002 Texas election data were replicated with new
the rst level of agenda setting the transfer of object salience data collected during the 2010 gubernatorial election and
from the media agenda to the public agenda answers the yielded a correlation of 0.71 (Guo and McCombs, 2011b).
question What are the pictures about? The second level of In the 2012 US presidential election, Vargo et al. (2014)
agenda setting the transfer of attribute salience from the compared the correspondence of Twitter network issue
media agenda to the public agenda answers the question agendas from mainstream media, partisan media, and the
What are the principal characteristics presented in these supporters of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
pictures? The emerging third level of agenda setting brings us
closer to answering the question What are the pictures?
Beyond the transfer of salience for objects and attributes taken Explaining Agenda-Setting Effects
individually, can the news media transfer the salience of a more
integrated image, a more comprehensive picture of an object News reports are a limited portrait of our environment and,
and its attributes? as Lippmann noted in Public Opinion, create a pseudo-
In the research to date on the rst and second levels of environment to which the public responds. Often there is
agenda setting, the elements that have been investigated are little correspondence between the pattern of news coverage and
discrete objects and attributes. That is, the objects have been underlying historical trends.
disaggregated from their larger context and rank-ordered Shortly after the Chapel Hill study, Funkhouser (1973)
according to their frequency of appearance in news stories compared the responses to the Gallup Polls MIP question
and in survey respondents answers to the most important across the entire decade of the 1960s with the pattern of
problem (MIP) question or a similar measure of object coverage on those issues in the news magazines and found
salience. At the second level of agenda setting, the attributes a high degree of correspondence, a correlation of 0.78. Most
describing political gures, issues, or other objects have been importantly, he added a third set of data, statistical indicators
disaggregated from their larger context and rank-ordered of the reality of those issues across the 1960s. Funkhouser
according to their frequency of appearance in news stories (1973: p. 72) noted that the patterns of media coverage did
and in survey respondents answers to questions measuring not have a one-to-one relationship to the realities of any of the
attribute salience. However, in the actual news stories and in issues. While the media and public agendas were strongly
respondents descriptions, these elements are bundled together. linked, both had an arms-length relationship with the histor-
Attributes are linked to objects and typically more than one ical trends of the decade.
attribute appears in a news story or a respondents reply. Similar disconnects between the world outside and the
The third level of agenda-setting effects theorizes that the agendas of the media and the public have been found over the
salience of these bundled relationships among objects and years for a wide variety of issues. From 1970 to 1990, the public
attributes are also transferred from the news media to the responded to the increasing coverage of environmental prob-
public. Theoretically central to this perspective is an associative lems in the face of decreasing air and water pollution (Ader,
network model of memory. Rather than conceptualizing our 1995). In the 1970s, public concern was aroused by news
mental representations as a hierarchical or linear structure as reports about the availability of petroleum in Germany when
implied in the traditional understanding of agenda-setting there was no real evidence of any shortage (Kepplinger and
theory, this associative network model holds that the repre- Roth, 1979). The salience of crime as an issue appears to be
sentation operates pictorially, diagrammatically, or carto- particularly susceptible to news coverage. Gordon and Heath
graphically (Braddon-Mitchell and Jackson, 2007; Cummins, (1981) found signicant differences in concern about crime
1996). In this network model, individuals cognitive repre- in Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco between readers of
sentations are presented as a network-like structure where each newspapers with amboyant crime coverage vs newspapers
element is connected to numerous other elements. with conservative crime coverage. In the 1990s there was
To explore whether the media can bundle a variety of a similar public response in Texas to an increase in news
elements and make them salient in the publics mind simul- coverage of crime during a time when there was a decreasing
taneously, Guo and McCombs (2011a) reanalyzed data from trend in actual crime (Ghanem, 1996). More recently, Gross
a previous study that had found strong attribute agenda-setting and Aday (2003) found that exposure to local TV news with
effects based on a traditional analysis of discrete sets of political its heavy crime coverage was the major predictor of naming
candidates attributes. In the original study of the images held crime as an important issue in Washington, DC.
by voters of four statewide political candidates in the USA (Kim The publics response in all these situations is reminiscent of
and McCombs, 2007), the overall correspondence between the the phenomenon of alarmed discovery, the initial stage of
media attribute agenda and the public attribute agenda was public response to a new issue on the agenda that is described
354 Agenda Setting, Media Effects on

in Downss (1972) theory of the issue attention cycle. The the public agenda, scholars also have asked Who sets the
medias presentation of the issues just discussed also can be media agenda? Inuences shaping the media agenda range
characterized as alarmed discovery because the news began to from the external activities of major news sources to the
emphasize each of these issues at a time that nothing out of the internal dynamics of the media system (Dearing and Rogers,
ordinary was occurring in the real world. In effect, these were 1996; McCombs, 2014). Examination of the New York Times
natural experiments in a real-world setting that yield compel- and Washington Post across a 20-year period found that nearly
ling evidence of the agenda-setting impact of the news on the half of the news stories were based substantially on press
public. releases and other direct inputs by news sources, such as press
These agenda-setting effects of the mass media occur conferences and background briengs. News coverage of
worldwide, wherever there are reasonably open political and Louisiana government agencies was substantially based on
media systems. Under these circumstances, the public information provided by their public information ofcers to
frequently turns to the news media for orientation on the major the states major newspapers. Across an 8-week period the
issues of the day, especially those issues beyond the ken of correspondence between the agenda originating with the press
personal experience. Even in many cases where personal information ofces and all news stories about those agencies
experience creates high salience for an issue, people turn to the was 0.57.
media for additional information and perspective. Political campaigns make a concerted effort to inuence the
The concept in agenda-setting theory explaining this news agenda. In the 1993 British general election, a series of
behavior is need for orientation (NFO), the cognitive equiva- comparisons between the three major parties agendas and
lent of the physical science principle that nature abhors seven news media, both newspapers and television, found
a vacuum. People are psychologically uncomfortable in unfa- a median correlation of 0.70. American political parties do
miliar situations, such as elections with a plethora of candi- not fare as well at the national level. A comparison of television
dates and issues, and frequently turn to the media to satisfy news coverage during the 1996 New Hampshire Presidential
their NFO (Weaver, 1977). This psychological concept, which primary, the inaugural primary in the lengthy US election year,
is dened in terms of relevance and uncertainty, explains, for with the candidates speeches found only a moderate corre-
example, the strong agenda-setting effects found in 1968 spondence (0.40) in their agendas. However, at the local
among Chapel Hill undecided voters. Obviously, both rele- level, in an election for Governor of Texas the combined
vance and uncertainty were high for these voters, the condition agendas of the Democrat and Republican candidates shaped
dening the highest level of NFO. the issue agenda of both the local newspaper (0.64) and the
Matthes (2006) recent reconceptualization of the local television stations (0.52) in the state capital. The Texas
measurement of NFO takes account of new developments in election also reected intermedia agenda setting, the inuence
agenda-setting theory, particularly, attribute agenda setting, that one news medium has on another. In Austin, the corre-
and expands the measurement to three dimensions: the NFO spondence between the local newspaper agenda and subse-
toward issues, toward facts, and toward journalistic evalua- quent television news coverage of public issues was 0.73.
tions. Chernov et al.s (2011) experimental study found that A similar comparison in Pamplona, Spain, of two local news-
both the traditional and new Matthes NFO scales are reliable papers with local television news found correlations of 0.66
tools for predicting rst-level agenda-setting effects, and that and 0.70. In the USA, the New York Times is regarded as
they are signicantly correlated with each other. The traditional a major agenda-setter among the news media. A case study of
NFO scale performs better than the new NFO scale when pre- the drug issue during the 1980s found that the New York Times
dicting rst-level agenda-setting effects. However, when only inuenced subsequent coverage by the national television
the rst subdimension of the new NFO scale is used (i.e., NFO networks, news magazines, and major regional newspapers.
toward issues), both the traditional and new scales perform
about equally.
With increased levels of media use, there is also increased Consequences of Agenda Setting
agreement about the most important issues of the day among
disparate demographic groups, such as men and women or The agenda-setting role of the media has consequences beyond
those with high and low education. These patterns of social the focusing of public attention. These consequences encom-
consensus have been found in Spain, Taiwan, and the USA pass both attitudes and opinions and observable behavior.
(McCombs, 2014). Consensus also is facilitated by the limited In terms of attitudes and opinions, it is important to distin-
capacity of the aggregate public agenda. Typically, no more guish two aspects, rst the strength of opinion, beginning with
than three to ve issues are individually able to garner the fundamental point of whether an opinion even exists.
a constituency of 10% or more of the public who regard that Strength of opinion also distinguishes between weakly and
single issue as the most important issue of the day, and the strongly held opinions regardless of whether those opinions
public agenda is best characterized as a zero-sum game are positive or negative. Second is the widely measured direc-
(McCombs and Bell, 1996). tion of opinion, whether some object or attribute is regarded in
a positive or negative light.
To begin with the strength of opinion, there is a funda-
Sources of the Media Agenda mental link between the rst level of agenda setting, the transfer
of object salience from the media agenda to the public agenda,
Although the majority of empirical research on agenda setting and the formation of opinions by members of the public.
has examined the relationship between the media agenda and For example, Kiousis and McCombs (2004) found a strong
Agenda Setting, Media Effects on 355

relationship (0.81) between the pattern of news coverage successful in telling us what to think about. His distinction
during the 1996 presidential election and the percentage of between the affective and cognitive effects of the media was an
persons who held an opinion about each of 11 political gures. important precedent for research on rst-level agenda setting.
The greater the amount of news coverage, the greater the In turn, the expansion to a second level of effects, attribute
salience of that person among the public and the greater the agenda setting, and its consequences reinvigorated the
likelihood of having an opinion about them. A strong rela- consideration of media effects on attitudes and opinions. This
tionship also was found between the pattern of news coverage expanding perspective, now joined by a third level of effects,
and the strength of these opinions. Comparisons of the also is a rebuttal of the criticism that agenda setting has focused
frequencies of presidential campaign stories mentioned in the narrowly on the initial stages of the communication and public
New York Times and three network news broadcasts with a time opinion process.
series from the 2004 National Annenberg Election Study also Agenda-setting theory details the range of effects on the
found that increases in media coverage of the election were public that result from the news medias inadvertent focus on
negatively related to the refusal rate in surveys about the elec- a small number of topics and their attributes. To the extent that
tion (Stroud and Kenski, 2001). the news agenda is set by social forces external to the news
Turning to the direction of opinions, positive opinions media, the role of news institutions is important, but neutral, as
during 1992 and 1993 about the overall performance in ofce a transmission belt. To the extent that the news media exercise
by Hong Kongs last British Governor were signicantly primed autonomy in dening the publics news diet, they are in
by the pattern of news coverage on his proposals to broaden themselves a powerful social force.
public participation in local elections. Exposure to this news
coverage signicantly increased the importance of these
See also: Attitudes, Political and Public Opinion; Media Effects;
proposals in Hong Kong residents overall approval of the
Political Communication; Public Opinion: Social Attitudes.
Governors performance. By calling attention to some matters
while ignoring others, the news media inuence the criteria by
which public ofcials subsequently are judged (Iyengar and
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