Communications and Media Paper
Discuss agenda setting in the current media landscape: is agenda setting still a valid theoretical concept with an ever-changing media use, has the power shifted, or is agenda setting as strong as ever in our today’s society, forming public opinion on a daily basis.
Justin Lewis – Constructing Public Opinion 2001
Agenda setting in the current media landscape
The agenda setting theory is based on the view that the news media determines the agenda that dominates public debates among the audience. In the agenda setting theory, the news media creates public awareness as well as concern for certain salient issues while leaving out others (McCombs, 2005). The issues that the news media highlights most are the ones that trigger the greatest concerns while at the same time becoming the subject of numerous debates. In this regard, the news media is seen to set the agenda for its audience.
The agenda setting theory has proven to be a source of valuable insights into how news media operates and how they determine which stories to present to audiences and which ones not to (Lewis, 2001). However, many changes have taken place since the theory was first introduced in media discourse. In light of these changes, it is normal for concerns to be raised regarding its relevance in the current media landscape. It should be borne in mind that in the current information age, the audience no longer acts as passive recipients of news while sitting in front of their television sets. Rather, it is participating in the creation of news items, particularly through the social media and other internet-based platforms.
The aim of this paper is to provide a discussion of the agenda setting theory in the context of the current media landscape. The core objective of this discussion is to determine whether agenda setting still remains a valid theoretical concept in the contemporary environment characterized by ever-changing trends in media use. The main question that this papers sets out to answer is on whether the power has shifted or not as far as the ability to set the agenda by news media is concerned. The paper sets out to determine whether agenda setting is as strong as ever in today’s society in terms of the ability to form public opinion on a daily basis.
Overview of the agenda setting theory
There are two core assumptions that are routinely made in most research relating to agenda setting. The first assumption is that the press and the news media do not at any one time reflect reality; rather, they are always filtering and shaping it. The second assumption is that when the media concentrates on a few subjects and issues, the public is made to start perceiving those issues as more important compared to others.
The potential to set the agenda seems to vary from one media to the other. The issues that people see in newspapers and those that they see on television and hear on radio are the ones that most people across the country talk about. Proponents of the agenda setting theory argue that news media gives us the daily ‘agenda’ that we need to focus on. In this case, the media does not specifically dictate on what people should be thinking about; rather; it dictates the subjects that people need to form an opinion of.
The media plays a crucial role in society, which goes beyond the objective of simply reporting the news. It provides the public with topics that the public needs to think about, and in most instances these topics keep changing on a daily basis. There is always a reason why the news media puts certain information in the public eye while leaving out others. In this respect, it is appropriate to point that the theory is of benefit to society, because it facilitates the public understanding of what motivates media houses to choose certain topics while leaving out others. However, the downside of this is that the information that the public gets is viewed as being biased, such that it does not allow the public to select what is perceived to be of utmost importance.
Relevance of agenda setting theory in the context of the ‘new’ media
The information age has transformed the traditional media. In the traditional media, the main sources of news included the television, radio, and the print media. Today, the advent of the internet and the information has changed all that. Most people spend more time on the internet than they do listening to radio and watching the television. The social media is a source of news for many people, sometimes through online interactions with their friends, colleagues, and relatives. In the new media, the traditional media house is no longer the exclusive source of news.
Today, people who witness news events that they think are of relevance to the public simply need to pull out a cell phone with a camera and ‘film’ or take a photo of the event. It takes only a few moments for the individual to upload the video or photo on a social media such as Facebook using the mobile phone. In such a situation, Facebook users who own internet-enabled cell phones do not need to wait until they get home to watch the news on television. They will have already watched the videos on Facebook, filmed by eye witnesses who are not necessarily professional journalists. This explains how the new media has revolutionized the way people access news as well as how the traditional media operates.
However, although many studies have continuously demonstrated the relationship that exists between the traditional media and the public, little effort has been done to discuss agenda setting in the context of new media. This is unfortunate because the contemporary media landscape is radically moving towards the online realm. In the traditional media, ‘vertical’ operations were being used, whereby the media houses had the full discretion to determine which news stories to put in the public limelight and which ones not to; in the new media, there is a trend towards the use of ‘horizontal’ operations, whereby there is open access to information by everyone and the traditional media roles are continually being challenged (Lewis, 2001).
Similarly, with the emergence of new media, particularly online sources of media, the relevance of agenda setting has started being challenged. The media is increasingly becoming personalized, such that the agenda in the public limelight is no longer uniform. Moreover, other aspects of this theoretical concept are also being challenged in the context of the new media. For instance, in the realm of the new media, the components that would appear necessary for the threshold of issue salience to be achieved may or may not be present.
Additionally, the new media posses a unique feature of being highly fragmented, given that there is a plethora of sources that are accessible to any person seeking information. During the days of traditional media, particularly television and radio, the consumer did not have a choice but to be a passive recipient of all the news being presented to him. This created a situation where media personalities such as television news anchors had tremendous influence in society.
Today, the view of the audience has also changed with regard to how people belonging to a certain group can be persuaded. It is difficult to find the sort of group homogeneity that used to exist during the days of traditional media. It is no longer easy to find a passive audience and passive consumers. Furthermore, the line between media consumers and media gatekeepers has been blurred in the context of the unmediated new world (Williams, 2004).
In today’s media, instantaneous communication has made it extremely difficult for the media to set an agenda and impose it on the public. However, some scholars still think that agenda setting is still a potent theory in the context of contemporary media (Scheufele, 2007). Such scholars have introduced the concept of ‘agenda melding’ which is based on the comparison of the people’s response to media in with that of associations and groups (Scheufele, 2007). However, even this concept fails to answer clear questions relating to the ability by the new media to set agenda. Moreover, these scholars emphasize on transfer of salience in the context of today’s media environment. In such an environment, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the media to impose a clear media agenda and transfer it to the public. Failure for this transfer to occur simply means that the agenda setting theory has ceased to be functional.
In 1972, when the term ‘agenda-setting’ was coined, the mass media was clearly the most prominent, and arguably the sole link that provided a connection between the government and its people (McCombs, 1993). Proponents of the theory felt that the mass media was the only contact that the public had with politics (McCombs, 1972). They proposed that the things that the public learned were directly proportional to the emphasis that the mass media placed on various campaign issues. The scholars also described the concept of ‘issue salience’. Issue salience is the process through which the public regards as important what is viewed as important in the media. In such a scenario, in most societies, there was a high correlation between the items dominating the media agenda and those that dominated the public agenda.
The agenda setting theory also promoted the idea of agenda setting in inter-media contexts (Golan, 2006). In this case, different media outlets were observed to set the same agenda. This was a demonstration of the elite nature of most news organizations; these organizations had the power to make some issues more important while giving ‘media blackouts’ to others (Meraz, 2009). A ‘contagion effect’ was seen to prevail among news organizations, whereby there was widespread sharing of certain news stories across all media houses. In the new media, there is no guarantee that a contagion effect will occur among different media outlets, even those that belong to the same category.
The concept of ‘time lag’ has also been critical in explaining the agenda setting. Time lag is the optimal duration of time that a news items must persist in a media outlet before the public can start viewing it as important. Proponents of the theory pointed out that every media outlet had to set aside a time lag before a specific news agenda could be properly picked up by the public as important. In the new media, there is little attention to the need for time lag. News is instantaneously being shared as it happens, with little concern on whether it becomes the public agenda or not.
Moreover, the agenda setting theory to be fully functional, there is a need for a succinct distinction to be made between media consumers and media gatekeepers. This distinction is a core tenet of this theory. In today’s media, however, the internet has led to the emergence of networked societies, where all information boundaries are easily permeated. There is also diversity in the nature of interactions that people in society engage in. In this highly networked society there are numerous linkages that facilitate switching between multiple networks. It is also important to note that the community networks portray elements of vagueness, overlap, and area sparsely knit. In such a society, it is difficult to determine who the new media gatekeeper is and who the consumer is. This creates far-reaching vulnerability for the framework.
This vulnerability is magnified by attempts by some scholars to position the active audience theory as an alternative framework for explaining the current landscape (Scheufele, 2000). According to the active audience theory, the audience should not be viewed as homogenous; this is simply because the different users of the today’s media are of different backgrounds, they hold varying perceptions, and they use the media for different purposes. Proponents of the active audience theory challenge the idea that anything that is said by the media is crucial in understanding the agenda that is prevailing in the public domain. The argument made in this regard is that it is not possible to wire individuals to accept the dominant message that has simply been picked on and broadcast by mainstream media outlets. Rather, individuals are able to make their own interpretation of the dominant message and even reject the position that the media has taken. The core objective in this regard is to reject the assumption that the public automatically accepts the message that has been communicated by the mass media.
In today’s media landscape, the mass media no longer has the power to frame the story for the audience. The internet allows consumers to play the role of gatekeeper by virtue of authoring and reporting information and news. This is contrary to the position held by the proponents of the agenda setting theory, who argue that media outlets are able to determine the topics that become the most dominant themes in the public domain.
Even after the recent addition of the agenda-melding hypothesis as an addition to the agenda setting theory, there is still no clear delineation between those who produce the agenda and those who consume it. For the theory to be of relevance, the public agenda must be shaped on the basis of the media agenda. However, in the context of the current media landscape, the distinction between the producers and consumers of agenda has become blurred. In today’s information age, where anyone has the potential to produce the agenda, the ordering of the media agenda followed by the public agenda in a cause-and-effect fashion has been disfigured. Moreover, there is no time in the new media, since the public is being bombarded with news items from diverse sources all the time, in an instantaneous fashion. In light of these arguments, it is evident that agenda setting is no longer a valid theoretical framework for describing today’s ever-changing media landscape.
Golan, G. (2006) Inter-Media Agenda Setting and Global News Coverage: Assessing the influence of the New York Times on three network television evening news programs, Journalism Studies, 7(2), 323-333.
Lewis, J. (2001) Constructing Public Opinion: How political elites do what they like and why we seem to go along with it, New York: Columbia University Press.
McCombs, M. (1972) The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media, Public Opinion Quarterly, 36(2), 176-187.
McCombs, M. (1993) The Evolution of Agenda-Setting Research: Twenty-Five Years in the Marketplace of Ideas, Journal of Communication, 43(2), 58–67.
McCombs, M. (2005) A Look at Agenda-setting: Past, present and future, Journalism Studies, 6(4), pp. 543-557.
Meraz, S. (2009) Is There an Elite Hold? Traditional Media to Social Media Agenda Setting Influence in Blog Networks, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14(3), 682–707.
Scheufele, D. (2000) Agenda-Setting, Priming, and Framing Revisited: Another Look at Cognitive Effects of Political Communication, Mass Communication and Society, 3(2), 297-316.
Scheufele, D. (2007) Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models, Journal of Communication, 57(1) 9–20.
Williams, B. (2004) Monica and Bill All the Time and Everywhere: The Collapse of Gate-keeping and Agenda Setting in the New Media Environment, American Behavioral Scientist, 47(9), 1208-1230.
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