What Is Agenda-Setting Theory? (With Definition And Examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 27 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

There are several theories that study how media companies influence public opinion and discourse. One of the most important and oldest theories in this domain is the agenda-setting theory, which analyses how the media sets the public agenda by choosing to focus on specific events and stories. If you are planning a career in journalism, public relations, marketing or politics, you may benefit from knowing more about this theory and its applications. In this article, we define the agenda-setting theory, explain its levels and influencing factors, share some examples and compare its pros and cons.

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What Is Agenda-Setting Theory?

Agenda-setting theory discusses the media's influence on society by controlling what to think about and how to think about it. This happens by emphasising certain news repeatedly. The theory has two fundamental assumptions:

  1. The media yields authority over the truth behind the information by showing it selectively and not comprehensively.

  2. The media gives more prominence to certain news over others by reporting it continuously and creating heightened importance around it.

The theory by Dr Maxwell McCombs, an American journalism scholar, and Dr Donald Shaw, an American social scientist, is based on a 1968 study. The concept finds its earliest mentions in 1922 by Water Lippman, an American writer and political commentator, who also talked about the role of media in shaping the thoughts of the common public. In the 1960s, Bernard Cohen, an American political scientist, also observed and expressed similar ideas that eventually led to McCombs and Shaw formalising the theory.

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Levels Of Agenda-Setting

Here are the two different levels of the agenda-setting theory:

First level

This includes picking up a particular new item over others, also known as object salience. It deals with the object or news and the importance given to it. The first-level agenda setting focuses on what to think by influencing people's mindsets and getting their attention through excessive reporting of particular news.

Second level

The second level consists of influencing the public's opinion by articulating their thoughts. This primarily includes telling them how to think about a particular news story decided at the first level. This level aims to set the agenda or narrative about certain news events and developments by repeating the same perspective or highlighting the same information.

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Factors Influencing Agenda-Setting

Here are some factors that can influence agenda-setting:

Gatekeeping

Gatekeeping refers to the various checks or gates that news items undergo before the final draft of the story gets published. The reporters, publishers and editors of media companies often act as the primary gatekeepers. A news story passes through different professionals before it is finally published. This means that the personal views or thoughts of the gatekeepers might influence the final article.

For example, a media company that has business interests in other ventures can benefit from positive reportage of certain products. It may omit or downplay any negative reports about customer sentiment or public opinion using these products, effectively gatekeeping information.

Priming

Priming happens in agenda-setting when media companies prioritise specific issues over other news items. This might influence the audience's perception of the report by artificially increasing its urgency. Newspapers may do this by publishing such news on the front page, and television channels may accomplish this by discussing it repeatedly in different news bulletins and programmes. This can give the reader or viewer a feeling that the specific event is more important than others. For example, if media companies cover a politician's upcoming rally extensively, people might think it is an important event to attend.

Framing

Framing includes the various contexts in which different media companies show a particular story. Factors like target audience, values and ethical standards can create this differentiation in news reportage. Framing also discusses the manner in which the audience interprets the news. The framing of particular stories can serve as a reference and result in the public forming general opinions about what they read or watch in news reports. For instance, if a certain fruit or vegetable gets continually associated with stronger teeth, people may start making that connection on their own, even if the research makes a different claim.

Collaborating with other industries

Other industries that influence agenda setting include the marketing and public relation companies that help set a positive agenda and maintain a favourable outlook for business brands and individuals among the general public. This happens as the consequence of any untoward incident that could tarnish an organisation's or individual's image. A company's PR and corporate communication collaborate with media companies to spread positive news that can benefit the company or individual.

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Examples Of Agenda-Setting

Here are examples that can help you better understand the theory of agenda-setting:

Example 1: Promoting upcoming events

Media agencies sometimes highlight certain events like sporting events, musical concerts or cultural events in a manner that generates the public's interest. The audience may not be organically interested in the particular event, but the ongoing media reportage may influence the group to look forward and even go to the event. Such media coverage campaigns help these events be successful and profitable and help the media house generate revenues through marketing them.

Example 2: Helping specific services or products gain new customers

A full-page news advertisement or a special broadcast on a certain weight loss pill can help create curiosity among people about its effectiveness. Such media campaigns usually introduce new products and services to the public and target audiences to try the product. This fulfils the agenda of growth in sales by acquiring more customers when people purchase the pill after seeing or reading about it.

Example 3: Supporting celebrities rebuild a positive public image

Celebrities and movie actors may get substantial positive coverage from the media after a public controversy or scandal. The public relations team of celebrities generally work toward positive image building so that the audience forgets the unpleasant things associated with the person and remembers the favourable things said in the media about the celebrity. This helps protect the public image and also helps build a loyal fan base for the celebrity.

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Benefits Of Agenda-Setting

Here are some prominent advantages of agenda-setting:

  • Generates awareness: Agenda-setting can be beneficial as it highlights important societal issues by actively discussing them. The recurrence of specific news raises awareness among people about the issue and how to solve it.

  • Helps create a structured discussion: Agenda-setting provides a well-defined framework for the discussion around a piece of information. This helps create a nuanced debate covering all relevant aspects that highlight the pros and cons.

  • Assesses the prevailing sentiment: Agenda-setting can be beneficial in gauging the widespread opinions among the masses. Understanding the public views can help media and other businesses operate favourably with the public's opinion and increase their profitability.

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Drawbacks Of Agenda-Setting

Here are some key disadvantages of the theory:

  • Can lead to media bias and distortion of news: Media agencies often decide what news stories to report and how to report them to influence people. When they influence the reportage as per their belief systems, it can result in bias and lead to distortion of factual and accurate news.

  • May not influence the people who have a specific mindset: Agenda-setting may not influence people with a predetermined notion about a particular issue, even if the media objectively explains the challenges associated with it. So, agenda-setting might not always positively influence the thought process of people.

  • May miss out on important information: By choosing to focus only on specific news stories, the media may inadvertently or consciously suppress information that may be beneficial to the public. For instance, focusing on political developments or sporting events instead of promoting a limited-time social security scheme that can benefit people.

  • Can be difficult to measure its impact: Agenda setting commonly influences the mindset of people by influencing their thought processes. The degree to which they can effectively influence people's thinking capabilities is unknown, making it difficult to measure the effects and results accurately.

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