The future of agenda setting

by Emily Kelleher

May 10, 2018

Experts in communications research discuss the media’s role in our democracy, how it has evolved and where it’s going

In the wake of the 1968 presidential election between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, professors Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw set out to discover who decided what issues were important: the media or the audience? Their landmark study established the theory of agenda setting and set off decades of associated research. Fifty years later, their findings continue to shed light on this question, despite a radically different media landscape. On April 13, a panel including McCombs and Shaw convened at Newhouse to discuss the evolution of this research.

In the original study, McCombs and Shaw sampled 100 residents of Chapel Hill, North Carolina and asked them what issues they saw as most relevant to that election, and then compared the results to the issues that were getting the most news coverage. They concluded that the media has a strong influence on public opinion about what issues are relevant. Their study established the theory of agenda setting, the idea that in deciding which issues to cover and when, the media affects how the public prioritizes issues.

Donald L. Shaw, David H. Weaver, Maxwell McCombs, Lei Guo
From left: Donald L. Shaw, David H. Weaver, Maxwell McCombs (via Skype) and Lei Guo Hanna Benavides

Shaw discussed the implications of agenda setting in our daily lives, arguing that the theory applies not just to the media we consume but also to the people we surround ourselves with.

“Virtually everyone in your life, including your significant other, is setting your agenda,” Shaw said.

Shaw’s research found that the way the media covers issues also often reflects the values and interests of its audience. It’s a two-way street. He gave the example of southern newspapers in the early 1900s and their lack of representation of African Americans. Shaw argued that these newspapers reflected a culture that already excluded African Americans from its dialogue.

“I’m just suggesting that agendas are also very important as a representation of communities,” Shaw said. “The agenda itself is the process of [an] ongoing, evolving set of values buried in the culture.”

Shaw ended his remarks with a piece of advice. “We all live in these communities that we construct. If you don’t like the community that you’re living in, just change it.”

Rounding out the panel was Lei Guo, an assistant professor at Boston University studying media effects in both the U.S. and China. Guo is an expert on network agenda setting, which investigates the connections people make between issues and how we learn to associate certain topics with each other. While traditional agenda setting theory assumes that people rank the importance of issues as a set list, Guo explained, network agenda setting acknowledges a more interconnected model of human thought processes.

“When you ask me, ‘what are some important issues right now?,’ [you might assume] we will always think economy is the most important, politics is second and so forth. But human brains don’t function like that,” Guo said.

Instead, Guo said, people more often think about the connections between issues. She offered the example of immigration. When they hear “immigration,” some people immediately think about associated economic issues, while others might think of crime or racism. Guo’s research found that these associations can be created by media agendas. When the media includes discussions of crime and economics in their coverage of immigration, audiences also connect these ideas, Guo said.

The panelists acknowledged that they posed more questions than answers. McCombs emphasized that there is still a lot we don’t know about agenda setting, and compared future research opportunities to Lewis and Clark exploring the west.

“As we move forward into, in some way, a new era in agenda setting research, there are vast opportunities for exciting new research both in terms of exploring new theoretical frontiers and creating new theoretical frontiers. But also in returning to key areas in the established literature and measuring them ever more finely and in greater detail,” Shaw said.

Emily Kelleher is a sophomore dual major in magazine at the Newhouse School and political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.