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The Agenda Setting Function Theory

Today we’re looking at the Agenda Setting Function Theory which suggests that the media can’t tell you what to think but it can tell you what to think about.

The Agenda Setting Function Theory was developed by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in 1972 as a result of their study of North Carolina voters during the 1968 presidential election campaign. This study found a correlation between issues that voters believed were important and issues that the media gave prominence to.

McCombs and Shaw argued that the media uses a number of cues to indicate the importance of an issue. On the front page of a newspaper, for example, the importance of a story is indicated by the size of its heading. Likewise, a story that appears on the front page is more important than a story that appears on page five. According to this theory, the media has the power focus public discussion on particular issues. Again, it can’t tell us what to think but it can tell us what to think about.

In 1998, McCombs increased the scope of this theory to include a phenomenon called ‘framing’. He argued that in addition to telling us what to think about, the media can also tell us how to think about a story. News reports might focus on one particular aspect of an issues or report about something in a particular way. In Australia, we see this happening with news reports about asylum seekers. The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun, which are both owned by News Corporation, seem to frame the issue in a particular way with headlines like ’35 Asylum Sneakers’, ‘Costing us a packet’ and ‘Boat people in our suburbs’. Here, the refugee story is framed as a social and economic burden on the Australian people. These stories could be framed to focus on humanitarian issues or whether Australia is meeting its international obligations.

A number of studies have been done that make The Agenda Setting Function Theory seem pretty plausible. Typically, they show a correlation between the number of news stories on an issue and how important people think the issue is.

So what’s happening here and why are these good examples of the Agenda Setting Function Theory in action?x

Although The Agenda Setting Function Theory has been around since 1970s, it’s still a great way to think about communication and media influence.

Links

Wikipedia: The Agenda Setting Function Theory
University of Twente: Agenda Setting Function Theory