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Agenda-Setting Theory

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Subject: Political Science, Political Methodology, Political
Online Publication Date: Sep
DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199793471.013.48
Agenda-Setting Theory: The Frontier Research Questions
Maxwell McCombs and Sebastin Valenzuela
The Oxford Handbook of Political Communication (Forthcoming)
Edited by Kate Kenski and Kathleen Hall Jamieson
Oxford Handbooks Online
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses contemporary directions of agenda-setting research. It reviews the basic concept of
agenda setting, the transfer of salience from the media agenda to the public agenda as a key step in the formation
of public opinion, the concept of need for orientation as a determinant of issue salience, the ways people learn the
media agenda, attribute agenda setting, and the consequences of agenda setting that result from priming and
attribute priming. Across the theoretical areas found in the agenda-setting tradition, future studies can contribute to
the role of news in media effects by showing how agenda setting evolves in the new and expanding media
landscape as well as continuing to refine agenda settings core concepts.
Keywords: public agenda, media agenda, issue salience, attribute agenda setting, need for orientation, attribute priming, public opinion, media
effects, news
From the welter of daily events the news media shine a tightly focused spotlight on a select few, a role that is
central to the formation of public opinion. In Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann (1922) described this gatekeeping
role as the primary bridge between the world outside and the pictures in our head. Four decades later in Chapel
Hill, North Carolina, during the 1968 US presidential election, McCombs and Shaw (1972) initiated a detailed
explication of this idea grounded in a metaphor of public and media agendas. The media agenda is the pattern of
news coverage over a period of days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years for a set of issues or other
topics. In other words, the media agenda is a systematic compilation of the issues or topics presented to the public
that identifies the degree of emphasis on these topics. Often this is presented in terms of their rank-order on the
media agenda. The public agenda is the priority of these topics among the public, again frequently presented in
terms of their rank-order. One of the most widely used measures of the public agenda is the venerable Gallup Poll
question, What do you think is the most important issue facing our country today?
The seminal Chapel Hill study found a high correlation between the rank-order of the issues in the news coverage
of the 1968 presidential campaign and the rank-order of these same issues among the public. That initial finding
has stimulated hundreds of subsequent studies using panel studies and experiments in addition to cross-sectional
designs to document the causal assertion of agenda setting that the media agenda influences the public agenda.
This research has examined a wide variety of issues and other topics in both election and nonelection settings in
every part of the world. Wanta and Ghanems (2006) meta-analysis of this found a mean correlation of +.53
between the media and public agendas, with a very small variance.
Beyond these comparisons of media attention and public attention to the major topics of the day, agenda-setting
theory has expanded to encompass five distinct areas of research, ranging from the origins of the media agenda to
the consequences of agenda-setting effects on attitudes and opinions and on behavior (McCombs, 2014). This
continuing evolution illustrates the productivity of agenda setting. In their overview of political communication as it
entered the twenty-first century, Doris Graber and James Smith (2005, 489) stated, Agenda setting remains the
Agenda-Setting Theory
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predominant theoretical approach to analyzing the impact of media messages on audiences.
Expanding on the basic agenda-setting effects found in Chapel Hill, the 1972 presidential election study in
Charlotte, North Carolina (Shaw and McCombs, 1977) introduced a second theoretical area, the psychology of
agenda setting, grounded in the concept of need for orientation (Weaver, 1977). Individual differences in the level
of need for orientation explain both differences in attention to the media agenda and differences in the degree to
which individuals reflect the media agenda. For recent discussions, see Chernov, Valenzuela, and McCombs
(2011) and Matthes (2006).
The Charlotte study also introduced another theoretical area, the concept of a second level of effects, attribute
agenda setting. In theoretical terms, the Chapel Hill study examined basic agenda-setting effects, the transfer of
object salience from the media to the public. Object is used here with the same meaning used in social psychology
for the term attitude object. For each object on the media agenda or the public agenda, an agenda of attributes
also can be identified. This agenda is the hierarchy of attributes describing the object. Just as the rank-order of
objects on the media and public agendas can be compared to measure basic agenda-setting effects, the rank-
order of attributes on the media and public agendas can be compared to measure attribute agenda setting
(Weaver et al., 1981; McCombs et al., 2000).
Attributes of an object have both a substantive and an affective dimension. Substantive attributes are the cognitive
elements of messages that describe the denotative characteristics of an object. Examples of the substantive
attributes of a political candidate are qualifications and issue positions. For issues, substantive attributes include
subareasfor example, unemployment and budget deficits as attributes of the economic problem. The affective
dimension is the positive, neutral, or negative tone in the descriptions of an objects substantive attributes.
In recent years a fourth theoretical area has emerged, investigations into the consequences of both first- and
second-level agenda-setting effects for attitudes and opinions and behavior. This chapter focuses on the major
contemporary research questions in all four of these areas. A fifth area of agenda-setting theory, which is
discussed by David Weaver in this volume, concerns the origins of the media agenda. This area links agenda
setting to another field of mass communication research, the sociology of news.
This continuing evolution of agenda setting across these five theoretical areas is characterized by two trends:
A centrifugal trend of research in the expanding media landscape and in domains beyond the original focus
on public affairs.
A centripetal trend of research further explicating agenda settings core concepts.
Basic Agenda Setting
The expanding media landscape has prompted considerable research on online newspapers, interactive Internet
sites, and the ever-growing panoply of social media. In many instances, the key questions of this new research
replicate those of earlier decades when daily newspapers and television were the dominant news channels: Do
these media influence the public agenda? and Which of these channels is the more powerful agenda setter?
Although studies pursuing these questions have accumulated for more than a decade, a more comprehensive
answer about basic agenda-setting effects in the new media landscape arguably can be provided by asking the
first question in broader terms and downplaying the latter question about the relative strength of various channels.
Decades of previous research on the comparative influence of newspapers and television provide useful guidance
here. Despite dozens of studies, the relative impact of newspapers and television remains on the one hand, on
the other. About half of the time, there is no difference. For the remainder, the split is roughly two-thirds showing
stronger newspaper effects and one-third demonstrating stronger TV effects.
Rather than attempting to tease out the relative impact of discrete media channels, a gestalt approach in recent
empirical work demonstrates that agenda-setting effects among members of the public frequently are the
cumulative result of the numerous channels that define most peoples news environment. Stromback and Kiousiss
(2010) study of the 2006 Swedish national election illustrates this perspective. Using a three-wave panel survey,
they explicitly compared the impact of overall political news consumption versus media-specific news consumption
on issue salience across nine different media channels (newspapers vs. television vs. radio) and media types
Agenda-Setting Theory
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(commercial media vs. public service media and elite newspapers vs. tabloid newspapers). Their results show that
attention to political news exerts a strong influence on issue salience, and attention to political news matters more
than attention to different newspapers or to specific news shows on television and radio.
These findings fit a wide range of previous research. There is compelling evidence dating from Chapel Hill about
the high degree of convergence between the agendas of different news media. Across the world, the norms of
journalism exert a powerful pressure toward similarity in telling the news of the day (King, 1997; McCombs, Lopez-
Escobar and Llamas, 2000; Jonsson and Stromback, 2007).
Boczkowski (2010) not only found a high level of homogeneity in the news agendas of the major print and online
newspapers in Buenos Aires, but also noted the increasing similarity of these news agendas from 1995 to 2005. He
attributes this to the facilitation of journalists long-standing habit of monitoring the competition by the plethora of
news now available on the Internet and television.
An overarching theme in these findings is that we swim in a vast sea of news and information, a gestalt of mass
media channels in which the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. Evidence regarding the interrelated
nature of our mass communication experience dates from the earliest days of our field. In their benchmark 1940
Erie County study, Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet (1944) found substantial overlap in peoples use of various
mass media. Decades later, during the 1996 Spanish national election, McCombs, Lopez-Escobar, and Llamas
(2000) found a high degree of similarity between the strength of peoples agreement with their primary news
sources agenda and their agreement with the agenda of that sources principal competitor. For example, among
voters who identified Diario de Navarra as their primary news source, the agenda-setting correlation was +.62.
Their level of agreement with the competing local newspaper was +.57. Across eighteen comparisons, the median
difference in the correlations is .09.
Moving to the present, media use patterns among different generations do diverge somewhat because of the
Internet. As a consequence, some have predicted the end of the agenda-setting role of the media (Chaffee and
Metzger, 2001). However, drawing upon statewide surveys in North Carolina and Louisiana, Coleman and McCombs
(2007) compared agenda-setting effects among the generations and found little difference. Particularly compelling
is the comparison in Louisiana of the issue agendas of high and low Internet users to the issue agenda of the
states major newspapers. There is a difference, but hardly a substantial one. For low Internet users the correlation
with newspaper agendas is +.90. For high Internet users, the correlation is +.70.
There are powerful and influential newspapers, broadcast stations, and websites. However, the gestalt of media
voices is integral to our social fabric. The collective influence of the mass media also has the potential for
expanding Shaw and Martins (1992) seminal exploration of the role that news exposure has in citizens consensus
regarding the most important issues of the day. Their statewide study in North Carolina documented that both
increased use of newspapers and increased use of TV news resulted in greater agreement in the issue agendas of
various demographic subgroups. Most commonly, demographics are used to identify differences among
subgroups. However, Shaw and Martin demonstrated that the issue agendas of various demographic subgroups
for example, younger persons vs. older personsbecame more similar with increasing use of newspapers and
television. This consensus-building role of the mass media regarding the most important issues of the day has been
replicated in settings as culturally and politically diverse as Spain and Taiwan (Lopez-Escobar, Llamas, and
McCombs, 1998; Chiang, 1995).
Higgins (2009) further explicated this role of the news media in terms of second-level agenda setting. Focusing on
the European Unions reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States, she examined how
exposure to both national and transnational media in these fifteen countries increased the cohesion among various
demographic subgroups attribute agendas for the issue of terrorism and their attribute agendas for the Muslim
community in Europe. Use of national television was very strongly related to increased consensus regarding the
attributes of terrorism and Muslims. Use of national newspapers also was linked with increased consensus for both
of these agendas, but not as strongly as use of TV. The strength of transnational television was very similar to the
national press. Other media showed far less impact. Although borders still matter, especially for newspapers, the
increasing availability of electronic transnational media may translate into increased influence as well. And what
will be the collective impact of this expanding gestalt of news media?
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Psychological Determinants of Issue Salience
Within the centripetal trend in agenda-setting research, a central question refers to the processes by which the
media influence the public. Need for orientation remains the most studied individual-level factor for attributing
differences in the strength of agenda-setting effects, and its central concept of relevance is at the forefront of
research on the psychology of agenda setting. Evatt and Ghanem (2001) identified two substantive aspects of this
concept, social relevance and personal relevance, and an affective aspect, emotional relevance. People can
recognize that an issue may be important for society even if it is not important for them. Emotions, in turn, can
increase the relevance of an issue even if it is not personally or socially relevant. These findings are consistent
with statewide Texas polls in 1992 and 1996 exploring why respondents named a particular issue when answering
the MIP question (McCombs 1999). In this case, a stable set of five motivations emerged: self-interest and
avocationsimilar to Evatt and Ghanems personal salience; civic duty and peer influenceresembling the social
aspect of relevance; and emotional arousalthe same affective dimension identified by Evatt and Ghanem.
While the distinction between personal and national importance makes intuitive sense and is consistent with
research on the dimensions of attitude strength (Miller and Peterson, 2004), emotional salience deserves further
consideration. There is a long tradition in Western thought that downplays affect and emotion while highlighting the
benefits of reason and cognition. However, neuroscientists have long contended that affective and cognitive
processes are closely intertwined (Gray, 1990). In agenda setting, Millers (2007) experiments found that some
emotional responses to the news mediated agenda-setting effects, specifically when news stories about the issue
of crime resulted in participants feeling sad or afraid. Other emotional responses, such as anger, pride, hope, and
happiness, did not result in a greater salience of crime. Her finding that fear is a key mediator of agenda-setting
effects is in line with affective intelligence theory (Marcus, Neuman, and MacKuen, 2000), which posits that anxiety
activates greater attention to incoming information. However, the role of emotions is not circumscribed to triggering
relevance. Coleman and Wu (2010) identified a significant, positive relationship between the televised images of
the 2004 US presidential candidates and the publics negative emotional responses to George W. Bush and John
Kerry. Emotions can be both a regulator and an outcome of agenda setting. This complex set of findings is
suggestive of the fruitful venue for research that emotions bring to agenda-setting research.
Another source of the publics salience judgments is values, peoples core beliefs about what are desirable and
undesirable end-states of human life (Schwartz, 1992). Using a content analysis of newspapers, a panel survey,
and a laboratory experiment, Valenzuela (2011) found that agenda-setting effects were stronger when the topics in
the news agenda matched individuals values. Based on Ingleharts (1977) theory of values, he found that
individuals with materialist values exhibited larger agenda-setting effects for materialist issues such as the
economy and crime than for postmaterialist issues such as the environment and political reform, whereas
postmaterialist individuals exhibited larger agenda-setting effects for postmaterialist issues than for materialist
issues. These results replicated across both aggregate- and individual-level analysis, providing strong support for
the values-issues consistency hypothesis.
These different sources of relevance make it readily apparent that agenda-setting effects are not adequately
explained by accessibilitythe notion that issues become salient purely as a consequence of the frequency and
recentness with which they are portrayed in the newsas argued by some scholars (Scheufele and Tewksbury,
2007). If this were the case, the effects of need for orientation, emotions, and values would be insignificant.
Furthermore, empirical studies specifically addressing the role of accessibility in media effects, including agenda
setting, priming, and framing, consistently have shown that the public reflects much more than just the most
frequent or recent issues in the media agenda (Miller and Krosnick, 2000; Nelson, Clawson, and Oxley, 1997). Mutz
(1998) also noted that responses to the MIP question tap more than just cognitive availability of issues; they reveal
an affective judgment as well. Arguing that accessibility is the basis of agenda setting amounts to arguing that all
easily accessible media information is considered important, something that is not supported by the available
Learning the Media Agenda
A necessary condition for news agenda-setting effects is exposure, either directly through media use or indirectly
through communication about topics in the news within individuals social networks. In either case, the traditional
assumption is that people are actively exposed to public affairs. However, incidental exposure is an alternative
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route to acquiring the media agenda: learning passively without any significant involvement and intent to learn.
This is a long-standing notion within educational psychology (e.g., McLaughlin, 1965), but only recently explored in
political communication (Baum, 2002; Prior, 2007).
According to Frensch (1998), one of the routes for incidental learning is ubiquity. Individuals learn something about
a particular object, person, or situation because it is omnipresent. As previously noted, the high degree of
redundancy across media agendas increases the likelihood that the public will learn the media agenda even at low
levels of news exposure. An empirical demonstration of incidental learning within the agenda-setting tradition is
presented by Lee (2009), who found that participants instructed to pay only minimal attention to news stories (ten
seconds or less) about the environment had significantly higher scores on the perceived importance of that issue
than other participants who paid no attention whatsoever to these stories.
Another indirect way to learn the media agenda is provided by interpersonal and computer-mediated
communication about news. Initial studies in the 1970s generally found that interpersonal discussion mediated the
medias influence on issue salience (McLeod, Becker, and Byrnes, 1974; Shaw, 1976). Subsequent research,
however, found that personal communications offset the media agenda setting (Atwater, Salwen, and Anderson,
1985; Lasorsa and Wanta, 1990). Most likely, the effects of citizen-to-citizen communication on agenda setting are
contingent upon the content of the communication. When citizens discussions deal with issues covered by the
media, they should enhance the medias agenda-setting influence. When they deal with issues that receive little
coverage, they should dampen the medias agenda-setting influence by providing alternative issue considerations
(Wanta and Wu, 1992).
Taking a more nuanced approach, recent studies have been successful at integrating agenda-setting processes
with communication processes within individuals social networks (Weimann and Brosius, 1994; Yang and Stone,
2003). From this perspective, the issue agenda diffuses first from the news media to media users, and then from
these to non-media users via personal communication, a process akin to the classic two-step flow of
communication (Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1955). For instance, in a field experiment in Germany, Vu and Gehrau (2010)
published an article about a new issue in a community magazine and two days later observed the agenda-setting
processes and interpersonal communication triggered by it. They found a cascading effect: the article sparked
conversations about the issue, and these conversations in turn increased the salience of the issue, even among
those who had not read the article. Most notably, talking about the issue fully mediated the effects of reading the
article on judgments of issue salience.
Although the transfer of salience from the media agenda to the public agenda can occur through a variety of
means in addition to direct, motivated exposure to media messages, some observersas noted earlierhave
posited that agenda setting and other media effects are diluted in todays expanded media environment (e.g.,
Williams and Delli Carpini, 2004). On the one hand, some predict that with interactivity and the Web 2.0, the key
problem for agenda-setting theory will change from what issues the media tell people to think about to what issues
people tell the media they want to think about (Chaffee and Metzger, 2001, 375). On the other hand, there is the
possibility that with higher media choice, selective exposure will become more prevalent: People uninterested in
politics can avoid news programming altogether by tuning into ESPN or the Food Network. And for political junkies,
the sheer multiplicity of news sources demands they exercise discretionary or selective exposure to political
information (Bennett and Iyengar, 2008, 716). However, the evidence to date does not support these arguments.
At least at the first level of agenda setting, blogs and other social media applications still echo the agenda of the
traditional media (Asur et al., 2011; Meraz, 2009; Wallsten, 2007). Although more partisan television networks
(think FOX News and MSNBC) cater to audiences that share their ideological stance, their agenda of issues is not
that different from that of more centrists networks (Stroud, 2006). Certainly these are not definitive answers, and
researchers will need to constantly reassess the merits of media influence in a changing media landscape.
Attribute Agenda Setting
The first and second levels of agenda settingobject salience and attribute salienceare linked by the concept of
compelling arguments that identifies situations in which one or two specific characteristics of an object on the
media agenda resonate so strongly with the public that these attributes alone, rather than the full array of attributes
on the media agenda, increase the salience of the object. Ghanem (1996) found that not only did crime coverage
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in the news generate high levels of public concern about crime as the most important problem facing the country,
but an attribute of these crime storiestheir psychological distance, operationally defined by drive-by shootings
and local crimeinfluenced the salience of crime on the public agenda just as strongly as the overall level of crime
coverage. In other words, the attribute of psychological distance was a compelling argument for the salience of
crime as a major public issue.
Other studies of compelling arguments have documented the impact of negative tone in the news on the salience
of the economy in Israel (Sheafer, 2007); the impact of positive and negative attributes of issues in 2004 Kerry
political ads (but not Bush ads) on the salience of these issues on the public agenda (Golan et al., 2007); and
across five US presidential elections, the impact of a specific candidate attribute in the news, moral quality, on the
public salience of the candidates (Kiousis, 2005).
Although these studies illustrate that specific attributes on the media agenda can influence object salience on the
public agenda, we do not have any systematic theoretical knowledge of which attributes function as compelling
arguments. This focus on specific elements of media messages suggests renewed theoretical attention to message
elements in the spirit of Hovland, Janis, and Kelly (1953) and renewed efforts to build what Maccoby (1963) termed
a scientific rhetoric.
The larger point illustrated by the concept of compelling arguments is the ability of the news media to transfer the
relationships presented within the media agenda to the public agenda. The concept of compelling arguments holds
that news media can bundle an object with an attribute and make them salient in the publics mind simultaneously.
However, in most research to date, the elements investigated are disaggregated objects or attributes ordered
according to their frequency of occurrence. In terms of Lippmanns pictures in our heads, a further question is:
Are the news media able to transfer the salience of an integrated picture?
Some psychologists and philosophers hold that peoples mental representations operate pictorially,
diagrammatically or cartographically (Armstrong, 1973; Barsalou, 1998; Braddon-Mitchell and Jackson, 2007;
Cummins, 1996). In other words, audiences map out objects and attributes in their heads as network-like pictures
according to their interrelationships. This expands the traditional view that the publics perception of media
agendas works logically according to their importance. From this pictorialist perspective, the news media
transfer the salience of relationships between a set of attributes to the public.
In a pilot study to test this hypothesis, Guo and McCombs (2011) conducted network analyses on data sets initially
collected by Kim and McCombs (2007). Studying candidates for Texas governor and US senator, Kim and McCombs
found strong attribute-agenda-setting effects in analyses of each candidate separately, for both positive and
negative attributes separately and combined, and for all four candidates, both positive and negative attributes
separately and combined.
Reanalyzing these data, Guo and McCombs (2011) found significant network-agenda-setting effects consistent with
the attribute-agenda-setting ones in the original study. For example, the overall correlation between the media and
public attribute agendas in Kim and McCombs (+.65) corresponds with the correlation (+.67) between the media
and public network agendas in Guo and McCombs. However, the details of the interrelationships in the network
analysis provide a much richer picture of attribute agenda setting and suggest a wide range of new research
regarding the impact of media agendas on the pictures in our heads.
Research on the concept of compelling arguments and on integrated attribute agendas reflects the trend of further
explicating the core concepts of agenda-setting theory. This avenue is further illustrated by Son and Weavers
(2006) expansion of the media agenda, which takes into account the context in which the news media present the
candidates and their affective attributes to the public. Focusing on the 2000 US presidential election, these authors
investigated which news sources of candidate salience and which news sources of candidate affective attribute
salience predicted changes in public opinion about each of the candidates, either immediately or cumulatively. The
effects of both the first and second levels of agenda setting on the standings of the candidates in national public
opinion polls were primarily cumulative rather than immediate, and different news sources had very different
effects on them. For candidate salience, the reporters analysis and polls had strong cumulative effects on the poll
standings. For candidate attribute salience, statements by both the candidate himself and by members of the
competing party had strong cumulative effects on the poll standings. Other news sources had little or no impact.
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Son and Weavers expanded perspective on attribute agenda setting suggests integrating object and issue
salience with journalistic elements, such as sources, that characterize news stories. Their perspective also
suggests the potential value of applying network analysis to these richer views of the media agenda.
Consequences of Agenda Setting
The transfer of salience of objects and their attributes from the media agenda to the public agenda is consequential
for individuals attitudes, including both their direction and strength, and for behavior. The most widely investigated
attitudinal effect of agenda setting is media priming, the influence of the news media on the criteria used by citizens
to evaluate political figures, governments, and political parties (Iyengar and Kinder, 1987). Asked their opinions
about political topics such as performance of the president, most citizens do not engage in comprehensive
analysis of their total store of information. Rather, individuals use information emphasized by the news media. The
more the media cover a particular issueprime that issuethe more people will rely on what they know about it to
make political judgments. Ultimately, media priming may lead people to vote differently, providing a strong
connection between agenda setting and behavioral effects.
Since Dietram Scheufeles chapter covers media priming extensively, here we concentrate on two other areas.
First, researchers have identified attribute priming effects where the increased salience among the public of
specific attributes emphasized in news coverage influences the weights people assign to those attributes in their
evaluations of attitude objects. This process is usually a consequence of the valence of particularly salient
attributesthat is, positive or negative attributes as perceived by the public. Sheafer (2007) referred to this
influence as affective attribute priming and found significant evidence for this effect across five Israeli elections.
Specifically, the more negative the news coverage of the Israeli economy, the lower were the evaluations of the
general performance of the incumbent political party. Not only did news prime the economy as a standard for
judging incumbent party performance, but the affective tone of that coverage also influenced the direction of the
A second aspect of the priming literature that is important for agenda setting asks which members of the public are
more susceptible to media influence. At question is how competent citizens are at making political decisions. If
priming effects occur because people are politically nave, then the news media have a worrying power over
citizens, as it would indicate that individuals preferences are fully malleable by the media and political elites. If, on
the other hand, priming occurs among more politically sophisticated citizens, then media influence could be the
result of a rather deliberative process by which people actively filter news content. To date, the research results
have been inconsistent. Some studies have found that higher knowledge facilitates priming, but higher interest and
higher exposure reduce it (Krosnick and Brannon, 1993), while other studies have found that neither attentiveness
nor general political knowledge is related to priming (Vanderbrug, Semetko, and Valkenburg, 2007). To reconcile
these conflicting results, Valenzuela (2009) proposed that media priming varies across levels of political
involvement. Priming should be strongest for citizens with moderate levels of involvement, who are interested
enough in public affairs to follow the news, but lack the ideological strength to reject media cues. Using a content
analysis of press coverage and a panel survey from the 2006 Canadian election, he found that, as predicted,
priming was highest for citizens with medium levels of knowledge and discussion frequency and lowest for citizens
at either extreme of these involvement measures. Compared to pessimistic and optimistic accounts of citizen
competence, these findings present a more nuanced perspective on individuals ability to filter and process news.
In addition to agenda-setting effects on the direction of opinions, there is mounting evidence about the role of the
media agenda in shaping the strength of peoples attitudes toward political figures and other objects in the news.
According to McGuires (1989) hierarchy of effects model, cognitive effectsthe publics awareness of objects on
the agendaprecede having opinions about those objects. Nevertheless, Kiousis and McCombs (2004) identified a
different causal chain of effects. Using survey data from the 1996 US presidential election, they found that media
salience of a political figure first influenced having an opinion about that person, which subsequently affected the
salience of that person in peoples minds. This study suggests that agenda setting relates not only to opinion
formation, but also to opinion strength.
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When connecting to the world outside our family, neighborhood, and workplace, we deal with a secondhand reality
created by journalists and media organizations. However, due to time and space constraints, the mass media focus
their attention on a few topics that are deemed newsworthy. Over time, those aspects of public affairs that are
prominent in the media usually become prominent in public opinion. This ability to influence which issues, persons,
and topics are perceived as the most important of the day was the first conceptualization of the agenda-setting
role of the media, one that dates back to the 1968 Chapel Hill study. Over the last four decades, agenda setting
has expanded into five different facets, from the origins of the media agenda to the consequences of agenda
setting on attitudes and behavior.
In our review we have identified several engaging research questions across various aspects of agenda-setting
theory, including the expanding media landscape, the psychological origins of issue relevance, and the transfer of
a network of attributes of media objects from the media to the public. Looking to the future, creative scholars will
refine the core ideas of agenda setting, expand the theory in new arenas, and produce new knowledge regarding
the medias role in society.
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Maxwell McCombs
Maxwell McCombs (Ph.D., Stanford University) is Professor Emeritus in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at
Austin. His research continues to explicate the theoretical structure of agenda setting and its social impact in the expanded public
affairs settings of the new media landscape. His continuing work on agenda setting recently was awarded the 2011 Helen Dinerman
Award jointly with Donald Shaw by the World Association for Public Opinion Research.
Sebastin Valenzuela
Sebastin Valenzuela (Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin) is Assistant Professor of Communications at Catholic University of
Agenda-Setting Theory
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Chile. He conducts research on political communication and digital media, and his work has been published or is forthcoming in
Communication Research, Journal of Communication, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication and International Journal of
Public Opinion Research. Previously, he was a Fulbright scholar and a journalist for Chiles main daily, El Mercurio.