Monday, September 17, 2007

Agenda Setting Theory for DUMMIES.

Hooray for the FIRST POST!

This is Agenda-Setting 101 for the caveman and/ or non communication major. Future posts will be on its applications in various contexts, so I thought it would be best if I give a background on the theory that we will be discussing as the days pass by. It would then be easier, for you, dear bloghopper, to understand the stuff that we will be blogging about. It may not make sense to you now, but as the blog entries pour in, we're pretty sure that you will soon understand not only what the agenda-setting function is, but also why we think you should know about it.

Basic Assertion

The media establishes the salient issues that society deems important. Society’s discourse and interaction is shaped by media influence, where premeditated values are unobtrusively acculturated in the majority’s lifestyle.



The agenda setting function of the media was initially based on the tenets of journalism. In the 1920’s, American journalist Walter Lippman criticized the inclination of journalists to generalize reality by patterning it on fixed, stereotyped concepts. In doing so, the public started to conceive truth not from what they saw, but from what journalism fed them. Lippman argued that though journalists were efficiently disseminating information, the issues that they featured failed to give a comprehensive view on the real state of society. Hence, society’s feedback is invalidated because it is not appropriately directed to the issues that need attention.

In 1970’s, Donald Shaw and Maxwell Mc Combs concretized the assumptions of Lippman through their groundbreaking “Chapel Hill” study. During the 1968, 1972, and 1976 presidential elections in the United States, Shaw and Mc Combs studied the media’s influence in determining the political issues that the community considered to be newsworthy. Through a series of carefully conducted experiments, they were able to deduce that there is a correlation between the rate that the media covers a story and the extent to how people respond to a particular issue. It further implies that the amount of time that news organizations allot for an issue is directly proportional to the level of involvement that the audience will have towards the issue being featured.

Dissatisfied by the propositions of the early theories in the effects tradition (e.g. hypodermic needle theory, limited effects theory), more and more researchers have gone beyond the effects of the media and now investigate on how the media shapes the issues that have predetermined effects on their audiences.

Kinds of Agenda:

A. Media Agenda

These are the issues discussed in popular forms of mass media like newspapers, television, the radio and the internet.

B. Public Agenda

These are the basic issues considered to be relevant by the public like issues of state, popular culture and religion.

C. Policy Agenda

These are issues that policy makers consider important. Policy makers may refer to law-governing officials like legislators (for the government) and legal counsels (for private companies).

D. Corporate Agenda

These are the issues that businesses and corporations consider important, as they are primarily profit-oriented.

Levels of Agenda-Setting

1. Establishment of Issue

Initially, the media establishes the general issue that should incite public interest. It does so by using objects or issues that are relevant to the majority in order to suggest matters that they should think about. The media starts to filter content by simultaneously using multiple media networks (television, newspapers, radio and internet) to zero in on an issue. This control over the selection of content discussed in the media is known as gatekeeping.

2. Issue Elaboration

After inducing the public on what to talk about, mass media delves even further by suggesting how they should think about it. Similar to the elaboration likelihood model, the public may be encouraged to think cognitively (central route) or affectively (peripheral route). The cognitive approach is usually used in grave matters that require elaboration such as issues about state, religion and societal attributes. On the contrary, product-centered campaigns use the affective approach because the audience must think only in terms of acceptance or rejection. Since the goal is to “set” the choice that they want the public to make, it is imperative that these choices are laid out attractively. For instance, the mass media constantly makes use of techniques such as priming and framing to boost product popularity and consumer interest. Priming occurs when the medium provides more time for a particular issue, making it more accessible and evident to the public. Meanwhile, the medium executes framing when it defines how an issue will be packaged to produce particular predetermined interpretations.

3. Intermedia Agenda Setting

In the final phase of agenda setting, salience transfer is coursed through different media channels or networks of a business conglomerate. Sister companies of a corporation will team up to effectively set the agenda and create what Lippman calls a pseudo-environment. This shall give the impression that the series of prefabricated circumstances is part of reality.


  • It gives an explanation on how and why there is a collective similarity among the issues or values prioritized or discussed frequently by a certain group.
  • It assumes that as long as the majority is exposed to the same sources of information or influence, they will uphold similar values.
  • The theory can be applied extensively, beyond the tenets of the mass media.
  • It allows researchers to identify and “compartmentalize” the effects of the media.
  • The theory allows further research.
  • It transcends mass media culture throughout different generations.


  • It has a tendency to be overrated. Issue awareness per se, cannot create, nor solve problems all the time. People will pay attention, but will they do something about it?
  • For people who have very strong positions on a given issue, agenda-setting may only backfire and create a boomerang effect.
  • People have divided attention towards the many issues that the media feeds them. The media does not set just one agenda. It certainly sets a lot. Hence, the predicted effects of the theory are diminished.


1. Infante, Dominic A. et al. Building Communication Theory. Illinois: Waveland Press, 1990.

2. Severin, Werner J. and James W. Tankard, Jr. Communication Theories: Origins, Methods and Uses in the Mass Media. Austin: Addison Wesley Longman, 2001.