Agenda Setting Theory of the Media

The Thesis Statement

This paper seeks to critically analyze theoretical perspectives of the mass media by first defining what a theory is, discussing briefly a few examples of mass communication theories, their significance in academic institutions and in the world we live in. However, forming a technical theme of discussion in this essay is “the theory of agenda-setting” of the mass media which has been probed extensively by quite a number of research studies. Here, we will be looking into the origin and development of agenda-setting theory, its implications, and how important it may be in modern society.

What is a Theory?

What constitutes a theory may mean different things, depending on the area of application or the context in which “the so-called theory” is being applied. For instance, in mathematics and sciences, we will be talking about “tested and testable concepts which are used in explaining occurrences” (Smith, & Bronwyn, 2010).In the faculty of arts and social science, a theory may be that which is no-practical, or even the unjustifiable and speculative ideologies (Smith, & Bronwyn, 2010).

There could be an amalgamation of many confusing definitions of what a theory is. But generally; it holds certain common consensuses, both in sciences, social sciences, and in arts. The consents include a sense of conceptualization, justifiability, and linkage between some set of variables, or even non-variables (Smith, & Bronwyn, 2010). In the context of this paper, we will be looking into a paradigm that links the mass media and the public in establishing a common public opinion.

A theory can thus be defined as a conceptual representation of reality. It has also been defined as “a statement which links specific instances to broader principles” (Kalyani, 2003). In a broader sense, a theory may be understood to be a way of trying to understand why things happen the way they do, or what should be done to make things happen in certain ways.

Role of Theories in Academic Institutions and in the Real World

Theories that describe how things work in the world we observe have been called empirical theories, while those which involve making a judgment about the world we see are known as normative theories (Cohen, 1963). Normative theories of the media help explain how the media should operate rather than how it operates. How the media works are left for the case of empirical theories.

Communication theories are therefore aimed at facilitating our understanding of the processes involved in mass communication. With a better knowledge of how the media works, we are in a position to forecast and control or manage the possible outcomes of the potency mass communication.

Theories are very critical in academic fraternities and have become part and parcel of academic learning processes. As argued in the journal of “National Council of Educational Administration-NCPEA”, academic practitioners may not be able to do without theories, “if practitioners shun theory then they must rely on experience as a guide to action” (Tony, 2006). Unfortunately, “it is wishful that experience alone will teach leaders everything they need to know” (Tony, 2006).

Is there such thing as a Wrong theory?

Theories that cannot be proven or which do not link the concepts to the prevailing realities in the world may be termed null and void. As Kurt Lewis notes in his often-quoted aphorism, “there is nothing as practical as a good theory”. The more practical a theory becomes, the better it serves its purpose (Smith, 2010). Therefore, there could be a possibility of having a wrong theory, so it’s true that there is such thing as “wrong theory”. A wrong theory is that which fails to explain clearly a relationship between variables, thus not presenting the conceptualities or the tentative ideas in the real world situation (Smith, 2010).

Examples of Theoretical perspectives and their Importance

Many theories have been put forward by different academic scholars, researchers, and philosophers, dating from classical, through medieval to modern times. However, not all the theories have stood the test of time; at least some have been challenged and eliminated from academic spheres (Matthes, 2009).

In the field of communication and the mass media, some of the theories which have generated a lot of debates and technical concerns in fixing specific broader principles are inclusive of the Robert Banduras social learning theory; the theory of gatekeeping by Kurt Lewis; diffusion of innovation theory, first proposed by Gabriel Tard, a French sociologist, then later advanced by Everett Rogers; the two-step-flow theory advanced by a group of social science researchers from the Bureau of Applied Social Sciences at Columbia University; and most importantly in this paper, the Agenda-setting theory of the mass media.

Banduras theory delves into the effects of the mass media on children, positing that when exposed to violent programs or aggressive role models, children are likely to become violent in the future, in trying to emulate their role models (Bandura,1973).In gatekeeping theory, Kurt Lewis holds that in the mass media, news stories pass through a set of checkpoints before they get into the public, and that during this process, at least some information is ignored or altered by the media to meet certain objectives (McQuail, 2005).In diffusion of innovation theory, it’s about the diffusion of new ideas through the mass media, whereas the two-step flow theory simply explains a communication pattern existing between the media and the public audience (McQuail, 2005).

Agenda Setting Theory of the Media: Origin and Advancement

Research into the theory of Agenda setting was first advanced by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in 1972 Public Opinion Quarterly (McComb, & Shaw, 1972). The researchers carried out their studies at “Chapel Hill, North Carolina during the 1968 presidential campaigns where they interviewed and surveyed 100 voters who were undecided” (McComb, & Shaw, 1972). The voters were surveyed on what they believed were critical issues for them. They measured their findings against “the actual media contents” (McComb, & Shaw, 1972).

Among the key issues, they probed on were policy issues, law, and order, physical policy, and socio-economic affairs. They found that the media contents were correlating with the views of the people they surveyed. The mass media contents perfectly matched with the public agenda (McComb, & Shaw, 1972). McComb and Shaw then concluded “the people had their agenda set by the mass media and identified an appropriate method of analyzing agenda setting” (McComb, & Shaw, 1972)

Actually, the theory of agenda setting dates back to 1922 when a renowned American journalist, Walter Lippmann researched on the power of the media in shaping reality for the public, by forming pictures into the minds of the people, an effect he referred to as “the pictures formed in our heads by the media” (Kalyani, 2003). It was from this point that Maxwell McComb and Donald Shaw picked to advance the research, naming their theoretical framework as “agenda-setting theory” (Kalyani, 2003).

Implications of Agenda Setting theory

According to McComb and Shaw, “agenda-setting is the creation of public awareness and concern of salient issues by the news media” (McComb, & Shaw, 1972). They went further to explain what the media agenda implied, what the public agenda entailed, and when to think of the public policy. They defined “Media Agenda as a set of topical issues discussed by the mass media” (McComb, & Shaw, 1972). According to Bernard Cohen, “Public agenda were those issues considered to be significant by the public audience” (Cohen, 1963). Public policy on the other hand was delineated as “those issues given salient concern by the policymakers” (McComb, & Shaw, 1972).

The theory of agenda-setting enables people to understand the relationship between “the extent to which the mass media gives coverage to certain stories and the rate at which the public audiences begin to think of such stories as important” (Cohen, 1963). With the medias tendency of frequently covering certain news stories they think are topical and therefore important for the public audience, the public begins to discuss such stories repeatedly addressed by the media. The public perceives the stories to be the most important as far as public affairs are concerned (Cohen, 1963). In this way, it is apparent that the media sets the agenda for public opinion.

The theory of agenda-setting is generally a theory of substance. This is to imply it’s a critical theory that has for some time provided a platform on which more research has been done in investigating how exactly the media sets the agenda for the public. This theory has also been applied in other fields of study such as political science and sociology.


There has been a continuing debate about two aspects of agenda-setting theory, that is, between public agenda and media agenda. The question which remained unsettled by McComb and Shaw, among other researchers, is why the public is not the one setting the agenda for the media, or rather; they did not provide a clear linkage in this reverse.

This theory seems to be so one-sided in approach, as in its entirety, it is the media responsible for what everyone else should be thinking about public affairs. Everyone else in this context includes the public audience, the policymakers, and the media fraternity itself. The theory does not explain to us when it is also important for the public to be setting agenda if some sense of democracy has to prevail anyway.

This state of biased reporting renders the agenda-setting theory of the media weak and unsatisfying enough to be qualified in a democratic society. In a democratic society, it is the people that should be heard and not anything else, neither the media nor the policymakers i.e. the politicians. The people should set their agendas, and not vice versa as Donald Shaw and Maxwell McComb may have proposed.

This theory also seems to be in a very close relationship with the theory of gate-keeping, in which case, the media filters news and selects what it considers important for public consumption. In determining what the public thinks about involves filtering news contents and framing news stories, then the theory of agenda-setting is short of explanation in how it is affected or affects the theory of gate-keeping. For instance, when the reality is distorted during the gatekeeping process, the objective or the aim of agenda-setting which is to inform the public frequently on important issues of salient concern is short-lived and not held to the promise.

As Bernard Cohen, a physicist and communication researcher contended, “the press may not be successful in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about” (Cohen, 1963). This indicates that people may also be ignorant in making their independent decisions on certain issues, and only relying solely on the media for information. Lippmann also asserted the mass media is capable of forming pictures into the minds of people, terming them as “the pictures in our heads”. If the media would be this powerful, then the theory of agenda setting authentically got a boost in its practicality.


In conclusion, the theory of agenda setting has both its weaknesses and merits. One of its weakest points is in its uncertainty of explaining the reverse process, whereby the public is responsible for setting its own agenda and not otherwise. This theory is, however, very crucial in enabling us to understand how the media can shape the world and how it affects the decisions of people on typical public issues.

People should also be held responsible for the decisions they make. The mass media do not suggest to them what to think or how to think, but only suggest what they ought to be thinking about, which of course they can choose either to ignore or fall victims of media manipulations.


Bandura, A. Aggression: A social learning analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.43-60.

Cohen, B. The Press and Foreign Policy. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press.1963. 120.

Kalyani, S. Journalism and Mass Communication: Theories of Communication. Chapter 2. PEOI. 2003.

McQuail, D.Mass Communication Theory. New York, NY.Sage Publication.2005

Matthes, J. A content analysis of media framing studies in the world’s leading Communication journals: 1990-2005. Journalism & Mass Communication. 359-207

McComb, M.E. & Shaw, D.L.The Agenda Setting Function of the Mass Media: Public Opinion Quarterly.Vol 36. 1972. 176-187.

Tony, B. Theories of Educational Management. National Council of the Professors of Educational Administration-NCPEA.2006.

Smith, E.S & Bronwyn, H. What is a theory? Theory. Web.

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