Agenda-setting was best described by Bernard Cohen (1963) who said that 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.
Thinking of agenda-setting theory (McCombs & Shaw, 1972), I think of a tamed version of the Hypodermic Needle Theory (or Magic Bullet Theory), first conceived by Katz & Lazarsfeld (1955). The hypodermic needle theory suggested that mass media had a direct and immediate effect on its audiences. The mass media as in the 1940s and 1950s were perceived as a powerful influence on behavior change due to:
- the gaining popularity of radio and television
- the emergence of an industry of persuasion, such as advertising and public relations
- the Payne Fund studies of the 1930s, which focused on the impact of motion pictures on children
- Hitler’s monopolization of the mass media during WWII to unify the German public behind the Nazi party (propaganda)
Considering the complexity of the agenda-setting theory, I should think otherwise. As a matter of perspective, the agenda-setting theory offers a more cautious yet precise analysis of mass media and its implications on human behavior. While the hypothermic needle theory seem logical in the beginning, it fails to account for the complex nature of human attitudes (attitude being the interim from influence to behavior). Underlining this, Berelson (1948) aptly puts it as on any single subject, many hear, but few listen.
The greatest contribution of agenda-setting theory above the other earlier theories would be how it models communication into a measurable process. By conducting content analysis of the emphasis mass media puts into its products, researchers have been able to predict the kinds of issues that would be salient in the mind of the audience. This was observed in the 1959 General Election in England (Blumler & McQuail, 1969), as well as the 1968 Presidential Campaign.
In the research done in 1968, McCombs & Shaw focused on two elements: awareness and information. Investigating the agenda-setting function of the mass media, they attempted to assess the relationship between what voters in one community said were important issues and the actual content of the media messages used during the campaign. McCombs and Shaw concluded that the mass media exerted a significant influence on what voters considered to be the major issues of the campaign.
As such, there are two basis assumptions about agenda-setting:
- The press and the media do not reflect reality; they filter and shape it
- Media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues.
In the later part of agenda setting research (1980s), much of the focus was on priming, a term taken from the field of cognitive psychological. In simple terms, I see priming as similar to judging a book by its cover. Priming refers to the effects of the media of giving the audience a prior context used to interpret subsequent communication (i.e. a frame of reference). While agenda-setting refers mainly to the importance of an issue, priming suggest to us whether something is positive or negative. An example of priming was seen in how in 1994, Times magazine depicted O.J. Simpson on the cover of their magazine with a digitally enhanced face that made him look darker and more malicious than in reality. (See lead image and check out photojournalism manipulation)
McCombs, M., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176-187.
Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: The violence profile. Journal of Communication, 26, 172-199.
Iyengar, S., & Kinder, D. (1987). The priming effect. News that matters: Television and American opinion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.