Not Your Regularly Scheduled Programming

Communication Series.


As a child, my parents always watched the news at certain times of the day to see what was happening locally and globally. I, myself, find that I am tuning in to certain channels and applications on my smartphone to see what is happening around the world. As adults, we have most likely found what channel we relate too or who shares our views on certain issues. The “objective truth” is what one expects to be reported on a news channel. This is most certainly not the case. Agenda-setting theory is all around us, and we don’t even know it. For Bernard Cohen once said, “the media may not tell us what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about”.

Agenda-setting theory is the theory that the mass news media have a large influence on audiences by their choice of what stories to consider newsworthy and how much prominence and space to give them. CITE Find intro McCombs and shaw It is mostly used as a tool that influences public opinion by setting the agenda by emphasizing certain issues in the public sphere. Cite This is important as the information in the mass media may be the only source we have to determine the importance of the latest issues. And will the recent election, the months leading up to it, and even now, what was the actual truth of headlines ran in the media?

Political or local elections is what I have found to be the most prevalent platforms for this certain theory. In the initial study done in 1972 by the famous McCombs & Shaw, they examined the salience or importance of issues that correlate with the media’s agenda to the agenda of the public. The research started with the presidential election of 1968. As I am old and forgetful, I had to see who was running against each other. It was Nixon V. Humphrey. The media has a way of cramming attention for certain issues or problems. To sum up the study, around 100 Chapel Hill voters were asked what issued matter to them, regardless of who they hand in mind to vote for. The media then started to analyze the results which led to local and nation newspapers and TV news to publish stories tailor-made regarding how the presidential candidates felt about those certain topics. This could be anything from foreign policy, law, civil rights, and fiscal policy. (McCombs and Shaw p. 179)

To quote Land and Lang, “they build up public images of political figures. They are constantly presenting objects suggesting what individuals in the mass should think about, know about, and have feelings about.” (McCombs & Shaw, 1972) Any time you watch a news channel, this is so. You see polls, charts, experts on the field, photographs, interviews and so on. Even if you are not an avid news fan or a fan of politics, it does give you things to think about. For instance, Hillary Clintons email scandal, or her lack of emotion for leaving soldiers to die in Benghazi, were all over the news last year. More prominent as of late. Did you think about her or her character during this time? Absolutely, and with seeing this on every channel, it was drilled into our minds. As human beings, we remember the negative connotations most of the time. The influence or impact that agenda-setting can have on the way we think, is called “priming”.

Priming is the impact that agenda setting can have on the way individuals evaluate public officials, by influencing the thematic areas or issues that individuals use to form their evaluation. (Kim et al. 2002) For me most recently, priming was the frequency and the emphasis of the same news story, and how the images were put in my head to think about. Your thoughts can become very one-sided, it is best to review the facts of a story.

The question is really who sets the media agenda? What is an agenda? An agenda involves communication and objects which are public issues or concerns. Objects vary in salience, and what is “newsworthy.” The placement of important stories usually headline a show, and in our minds, we quietly think of this as important, because they led with it.

Next, let’s discuss NFO (need for orientation) and how it correlates to mass media and agenda-setting. McCombs & Weaver (put first names) conceived the publics need to familiarize themselves with the environment through the mass media as a need for orientation (NFO). We know what we like or hold important when we tune into the news. People have the need, and seek to be and stay informed of what is going on around the world. People with high relevance and high uncertainty, along with high NFO, are more likely to expose themselves to media. (McCombs & Weaver, 1973). By emphasizing certain stories or attributes to a headline, the media can place the importance of headlines in our minds. Or, what attributes are salient in our minds. Salience is the quality of being important, or prominent. To be honest, I have never heard of this term, so it added to my vocabulary, and I will be using it quite a bit!

In later years, this theory was researched more, and more insight was added. As this theory grew, trends started to rise and account for the steady occurrence of media agenda and its impact on public agenda. The original McCombs and Shaw’s basic agenda-setting theory was if you will, the benchmark which led to the contingent settings that enhance or limit media agenda setting, with emphasis on the explanation for agenda setting.


Camaj, L. (2014). Need for Orientation, Selective Exposure, and Attribute Agenda-Setting Effects. Mass Communication and Society, 17(5), 689-712. doi:10.1080/15205436.2013.8354

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