Agenda Setting Theory (Definition, Examples, & Criticisms)

The agenda-setting theory states that the mainstream media sets the agenda of public discourse. It does this not so much by telling people what to think but rather what to think about.

This is to say that the more attention the mainstream media gives to certain events, the more likely the public is to consider the issue important. 

agenda setting theory

We often come across posts on social media that start with “Why is no one talking about….” They then go on to narrate some issue that has flown under the radar of major news media.

Often presented in a style of rambling, provocative rants, such posts, and their authors are critical of mainstream media, accusing it of bias in covering certain events, geographies, ethnicities, and other socio-political categories.

This is the agenda-setting theory.

Agenda Setting Theory (Explained!)

In the 1970s and 80s, when, the newspapers and television outlets had a lot of control over what was considered the important topics of the day. Getting news onto TV or the newspapers was a way of giving authenticity and importance to an issue.

To us today, who get a large chunk of our news from decentralized platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube, which undermines the ability of mainstream media to set the agenda.

This does not mean that the agenda-setting theory is not relevant to our times.

Its application in the 21st century has allowed us to discern the biases inherent in seemingly neutral and decentralized social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and how they influence our lives.

Agenda Setting Definition

First proposed in 1972 by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, professors at the University of North Carolina, the agenda-setting theory has 2 core assumptions:

  1. Media Controls Reality: The mainstream media does not report the “reality”, it only acts as a filter allowing some aspects of the “reality” to reach their audience while blocking others.
  2. Media Gives Topics Importance: The more the media reports on a certain issue, the more likely is the public to perceive that particular issue as being of greater importance than others. 

McCombs and Shaw (1972) in their formulation defined two levels of agenda setting by the mass media:

  • First-Level Agenda Setting – This is the process through which the media filters events as being worthy of being reported. It is characterized by object salience. An object in agenda setting theory is the thing towards which our attention is directed. Salience refers to its impotence relative to other objects. Thus, the more the media reports on a particular issue, the greater its “object salience”.
  • Second-Level Agenda Setting – This is the process through which the media attempts to influence how people think about certain issues, having already articulated what to think about in the first level.

For instance, if the media reports more frequently on Justin Trudeau compared to other Canadian or world leaders, it is object salience or first-level agenda-setting.

When the media lets us know that Justin Trudeau is a charming, 6ft2  man with auburn hair who loves sharply cut suits and is socially progressive (as opposed to focussing on allegations of corruption and judicial interference), this is attribute salience (or second-level agenda-setting) where we are being told how to think about him.

agenda setting theory examples

Examples of Agenda Setting Theory

1. The 2021 Afghanistan Withdrawal

In August-September 2021, the most covered news item across the globe is the “humiliating” withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. The news was reported in breathless coverage, with the urgency of impending doom. However, it was quite obvious that for most people in most countries of the world, the return of undemocratic rule in Afghanistan has little to no significance for their everyday lives. 

Even for the American people, there were concomitantly pressing issues in their own lives such as the healthcare crisis, hurricane damage, and flooding in New York that took a backseat to the frantic coverage of the Taliban. 

A foregrounding of a particular issue (Afghanistan), and ascribing certain attributes to it (a return to a regressive order) thus formed the first level and second-level agenda setting respectively in this case.

A similar example is that of the Iraq war of 2003, in which widespread media coverage of the stance of the White House that the dictator Saddam Hussein was in possession of WMDs was used to build public opinion in favor of an invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies. 

It turned out that Saddam Hussein did not possess any WMDs, nor did he pose any significant threat to allied interests. A British commission of inquiry called the Chilcot report termed the war unnecessary with no legal basis supporting it. 

2. Social Media Filtering

Although the agenda-setting theory was initially conceptualized for mainstream media such as TV and newspapers, in the 21st century, social media platforms and video sharing apps have begun to take over the role of traditional news media.

media platforms such as Facebook have repeatedly been accused of filtering news posts in favor of particular ideologies and thus shaping public opinion. 

Sociological research has backed the view that portals such as Facebook fulfil both the conditions of the agenda-setting theory in that they are selective in what they allow their audiences to see.

Audiences that interact with political content on Facebook show an increased level of “issue salience”, or believing that the particular issue shown prominently on Facebook is more important than others (Feezell, 2017).

This causes people to retreat into their biased political bubbles where the agenda in their newsfeeds is completely different to the agenda of people of differing political views.

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3. International Sporting Events

According to the World Bank, nearly half the world’s population lives on less than USD 5.50 per day. This makes professional sports a luxury beyond the reach of most people (Nearly Half the World’s Population, 2018).

Additionally, roughly 77% of the human race lives in Asia and Africa- regions from which little participation and interest are witnessed in international sports events. 

Annual sporting events, however, are a global spectacle dominated by rich nations of Europe and North America (China as a recent arrival being the only exception).

Despite this, media coverage of the global sporting spectacles is far in excess of the influence they wield over the lives of most people. This is first-level agenda-setting.

When the media further report on the attributes of certain nations as “sporting powerhouses” (such as Australia, the US, or Russia), this is second-level agenda-setting. 

4. Corporate Image Building

Agenda setting theory is also used by big businesses to cultivate a favorable public image.

For instance, Tesla and Elon Musk are constantly in the media spotlight. This is first-level agenda-setting or object salience.

A large number of media stories on Elon Musk present him as a visionary, path-breaking entrepreneur, and a self-made billionaire, focusing on certain attributes of his personality, and by extension, those of the businesses he owns such as Tesla and SpaceX. This is second-level agenda-setting or attribute salience. 

We can think of several such examples, such as Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic, Bill Gates, Microsoft, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and so on.

Good to Know Information

Although the agenda-setting theory is traditionally attributed to McCombs and Shaw, its first articulation can be traced back to the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Lippmann in the 1920s.

Often called the father of modern journalism, Lippmann (1922) described how mass media becomes a tool of propaganda in the hands of the ruling elite.

Lippmann coined the phrase “manufacture of consent” to describe the manner in which public opinion is shaped by selective reporting by mass media.

Noam Chomsky later borrowed the phrase for his highly influential book “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media” published in 1988. 

Altogether, Lippmann believed that mass media would cause the death of democracy as policy-making becomes increasingly complex and hence its true implications remain accessible only to an elite group of technocrats.

These elites filter and selectively present facts to the public through mass media, thereby shaping their opinion through agenda setting.

Due to the nature of mass media and its audience, complex, multifaceted issues have, of necessity, to be reduced to simplistic, easily presentable news bytes. 

Lippmann’s views were opposed by the philosopher John Dewey who argued that mass media empowered the citizenry and allowed instead, for a strengthening of the democratic process.

This debate, known as Lippmann-Dewey debate persists in much the same shape down to our day. 

For instance, when we debate whether social media empowers or undermines democracy in the 21st century, we are debating a version of the Lippmann-Dewey debate from the 1920s.

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Criticisms of Agenda-Setting Theory

CriticismExplanation
It’s Hard to QuantifySince the agenda-setting theory deals with the inner beliefs and thoughts of people (and how these are subtly influenced over time through the media’s influence), it is difficult to objectively measure and quantify.
It’s Inapplicable to Cases of Confirmation BiasThe agenda-setting theory does not apply to cases in which people already have their minds made up on an issue. These people simply have their views reinforced by what they see in the media, rather than having the media influence them per se. In such cases, the media is merely confirming an already existing bias rather than shaping opinion.
There’s Also Reverse Agenda SettingReverse agenda setting is the process through which public opinion shapes the media agenda rather than the other way around (Haarsager, 2009). In the classic Lippmann-Dewey debate, reverse agenda setting represents the stance held by John Dewey that mass media, in fact, strengthens democracy by empowering the masses. Twitter trends, viral videos, online petitions, etc, are examples of reverse agenda-setting.

Conclusion

Agenda-setting theory was first invented to explain the outsized influence of mass media on what is “on the agenda” in public discourse.

Today, the theory is applied to examine the influence of social media networks and their algorithms on what news we receive, and what the biases are of those news networks. It’s as relevant as ever today when our divided news networks are causing social rifts between the political left and right.

An advantage of new media, however, is that people can publish their own information online, leading to a range of alternative news networks emerging, especially on YouTube. Furthermore, platforms like Twitter allow us to give feedback to media companies, so we can set their agenda rather than the other way around.

References

Feezell, J.T. (2017). Agenda setting through social media: The importance of incidental news exposure and social filtering in the digital era. Political Research Quarterly, 71(2), 482-494. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1065912917744895

Haarsager, S. (2009). Choosing silence: A case of reverse agenda setting in depression era news coverage. Journal of Mass Media Ethics,6(1),35-46. doi: https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327728jmme0601_3

Lippmann, W. (1922). Public Opinion. Greenbook Publications.

Nearly Half the World Lives on Less than $5.50 a Day (2018) World Bank  https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/10/17/nearly-half-the-world-lives-on-less-than-550-a-day 

McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 36(2), 176-187.