Agenda setting theory focuses on the impact produced by mass media on the public’s perception of reality. The theory assumes that media create a specific image of reality either consciously or not by focusing on some events and facts while ignoring the others. Similar to an offline meeting agenda, media focuses on s predetermined set of events to highlight their importance and value within the described reality. The overemphasis on specific issues along with the omission of certain events enforce a particular way the public thinks about reality. Another postulate of agenda setting theory is that media influence people’s minds not only by the content, but also by the way, the information is presented. In other words, when confronting the public with certain events, media shape people’s perception of those events by the dynamics of their coverage. As such, viewpoints selected for presentation, questions and symbols used for the news construction, and priority given to a specific event help media present information in the desirable way. By selecting particular events and according legitimacy to them, media shape individual perceptions of reality (Fourie, 2001).
Agenda setting theory was a breakthrough in communications research dedicated to examining the role played by mass media in influencing individual minds and creating a common culture. Apart from daily issues, agenda setting theory has been successfully applied to investigating effects of political reporting through mass media channels like television and cinema (Moore & Murray, 2008). Theoretical foundations of agenda setting were developed in the middle of the 20th century by sociologists Donald Shaw and Maxwell McCombs in response to the scholarly interests in social and psychological effects produced by new mass media technologies. In a series of presidential election studies, they examine the relationship between media from and the importance assigned to the presented events by news recipients. On that basis, McCombs and Shaw formulated theoretical premises about media serving as a filter for a particular representation of events to set an intended agenda (Heath, 2004).
Agenda setting theory emerged from the 1920s argument of Walter Lippman about the press creating specific pictured in reader’s head. Thus, developers of agenda setting theory underlined the media focus on raising the public awareness about certain events and facts rather than encouraging particular emotions (Heath, 2004). Thus, media inform the public about events of the high value in the current reality rather than tell them how to feel or think about those events. Upon the initial introduction, agenda setting theory was further developed by McCombs for the next four decades as well as other social science researchers. Numerous studies applied agenda setting theory to examine, interpret, or measure the impact produced by news reporting and policy reporting media on public opinions. Therefore, the hypothesis of a relationship between media content and form and individual understanding of reality has been empirically validated as credible and reliable.
Developed to explain the impact produced by mass media, agenda setting theory is linear and explains a one-way effect. In the 20th century, media became the major instrument used by governments and policy-makers to affect the public opinion, justify government decisions, and increase tolerance to violence. Hence, media play a vital role in a larger system to establish productive relationships with the audience. In line with this three-stage paradigm, scholars distinguished three features of media capable of producing the desired impact. First, the government or other authorities need to provide an explicit support for media to ensure their credibility to the public. Second, the role and importance of media should be outlined and promoted by the social culture to increase the audience’s reliance on the media content. Third, media need to use impressive forms and ways of presenting information to produce the required exposure on the audience (Kwansah-Aidoo, 2005). These conditions are essential for media to play its role in the larger system as an interment of the public opinion’s manipulation. As a buffer between state or local authorities, media adopts and modifies information to present it in a way desirable by the officials, thus, creating a certain perception of reality by the public.
Fourie, P. J. (2001). Media studies: Institutions, theories, and issues. Lansdowne, South Africa: Juta and Company Ltd.
Heath, R. L. (2004). Encyclopedia of public relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Kwansah-Aidoo, K. (2005). Topical issues in communications and media research. New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
Moore, R. L., & Murray, M. D. (2008). Media law and ethics. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.