Agenda Setting and the Media

One of the good things about the recent controversy surrounding the flag of the Confederacy is that it brought to light some things about the media. Namely, that the media has control over the duration, quantity, and intensity in which a topic is discussed. When the media controls the outlets and channels in which consumers are informed about news and current events, they also control what the audience finds relevant. While this revelation seems to have been on the minds of many people lately, the concept is nothing new. In fact, it has a name: the Agenda Setting Theory. And as with all academic theories, it is open for much debate. The concept of agenda setting can be traced back to 1922, but it was officially given a name in 1968. Since then, the concept of agenda setting in the media is fairly accepted, and is not mutually exclusive from other concepts like framing.

But what is agenda setting? Well, I can sum it up in a few words.

The media doesn’t control what you say,
but it most certainly controls what you talk about. 

Now, this is certainly not a blog about how the media is evil. Because I really don’t think it is. Journalists have to take a very similar oath of ethics very similar to doctors and lawyers. There are entire organizations devoted to the ethical standards of journalists and public relations practitioners. Some of my best friends work in the news media, including one who’s in media production and another who’s in sports broadcasting.

But there are some things that I think the average person should be more aware of when it comes to agenda setting. If you just know these things, it will be a lot easier to navigate the treacherous waters of agenda setting.

1. The media is generally controlled by another form of agenda setting: money.

This can take place in two main ways. The first and most obvious is advertising. Simply put, the media, especially the mainstream media, is more likely to portray people who pay them in a more positive light than non-related companies. It’s why video game companies are always paying sites to inflate their ratings, and it’s why product placement occurs so much on news sets. But sponsorship isn’t exclusive to the media, in fact it takes place in almost all professions.

The second way money affects agenda setting is by, no pun intended, viewers like you. Certain topics are likely to be relevant to the widest audience possible. The widest audience possible means more eyeballs on the TV screen (or web page, etc). More eyeballs means more sales for the advertisers. So of course the media is going to set the agenda to make the most money. Because money is cool.

2. The cultural relationship between the audience and the media is cyclical in nature. We think. 

Have you noticed how the media seems to be getting more liberal? Well, it wasn’t always like that. The overall attitudes of the media seem to correlate with society. As society gets more conservative, so does the media. Then the pendulum swings and the media gets more liberal again. Some people perceive this as one or two people driving the media to be more and more liberal, but I tend to think differently.

I think a chicken-or-the-egg paradox is occurring. Is it the media that gets more liberal, which causes society to get more liberal. Or is it society that gets more conservative, which causes the media to get more conservative? I don’t know, but as with all chicken-or-the-egg scenarios, does it really matter which came first? Either way, society controls the media and the media controls society, probably at the same time.

3. In this age, you control the media.

This is maybe a little risky, but I want you to ask yourself something. What is the media, in essence? It’s people, right? And, well, I’m pretty sure you’re a people. Unless you’re a robot, which is possible considering how much spam my Askimet picks up on a daily basis.

Now I’m not saying you personally have control over what’s going to be on the 10:00 news, but if you’re reading this you either have a computer or a smartphone, probably both. You have everything you need to create your own media. This means you’re perfectly capable of starting a blog or putting a channel on YouTube or starting a live feed on Twitter. You can saturate the market, build an audience, and become a journalist without ever having to get hired by a company. And people do it all the time. Just know that instead of complaining about agenda setting, you could be out there setting your own agenda.

So to sum up the concept of agenda setting, let’s talk about something cool, like wind chimes. The media cannot directly control you into buying wind chimes. But they can talk about wind chimes so much that everyone starts to think about wind chimes. Then, everybody starts buying wind chimes, putting them on their car, buying wind chime shirts at Hot Topic, and remixing wind chimes with cat videos on YouTube. This causes you to think wind chimes are cool (wind chimes really are cool), and so you go and buy some wind chimes. The big wind chime companies prosper, paying for advertisements on mainstream media and a great big wind chime empire is formed. And THAT, friends, is how agenda setting works. And, to think, it probably all started because one journalist walked out on her porch one day to enjoy the sound of his or her wind chimes.

[Photo credit: Luis Llerena, Unsplash]

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2 thoughts on “Agenda Setting and the Media

  1. This is not a good explanation of agenda setting. It also isn’t a very good blog post. Here’s why.

    1. Agenda setting does not theorize that the media “controls” what you talk about. Influence would be a better word. By choosing to feature certain stories over others (like the Confederate flag controversy), media outlets can present an issue more frequently, which may lead to some viewers perceiving it as being more important and therefore talking about it or thinking about it more. This is most readily seen during election cycles, where hot button topics become the talking points of every debate. The current coverage has already narrowed in on immigration as a key issue. This is not the same as the media directly controlling audiences to talk about immigration. For a writer, you should be more precise with your word choice and avoid making claims that cannot be backed up.

    Also, your wind chime analogy makes no sense. That is an extreme oversimplification of agenda setting, and it really isn’t how it or the economy works. For example, by talking about immigration, what company is prospering? Has there been an increase in advertisements about Mexican things or anti-Mexican things (like guns or walls)? Are people eating more burritos because Donald Trump said some dumb things about Mexicans? No. Not at all because that would be ridiculous and absurd. There is so much more to agenda setting, the media, and social construction than what you are making it out to be.

    2. How do we know the media has gotten more liberal? By what metric are you making this claim? Do you have any research to verify this assertion, or at least other sources that come to this conclusion? While you may be conservative, as evidenced by your writings, society as a whole isn’t one or the other. You may feel like conservatives are in the minority, but that is not the same thing as saying that “society is liberal.” There are many people who are conservative, many who are liberal, and many who fall in between. Perhaps a statistic from a Pew survey could provide a demographic breakdown of the trend you are trying to describe. Furthermore, the concept of liberal and conservative is highly subjective and changes over time. What was liberal 50 years ago may be conservative now. So to say the media is liberal and therefore society is liberal is essentially a meaningless statement without further explanation.

    3. To say that a single blogger can “saturate the market” is a gross overestimation. While a single blog post has the potential to go viral, that is hardly the same thing as saturating the market in the way that agenda setting works. Stories don’t become prominent because one person on one tiny network talks about it. It can start that way, but really, in order for an issue to become big enough to influence social perceptions, it needs to be covered widely, by a variety of networks and sources often with differing perspectives on the issue. To tell your readers that they can “set the agenda” proves that you do not really understand this theory. Perhaps you should have done a little more research (beyond Wikipedia) to write this post.

    In fact, you are part of the problem. You are trying to help explain an issue by educating your readers about agenda setting, but because you do not fully understand it (or are poorly explaining it), you are spreading incomplete and inaccurate information. In essence, you are spreading lies, and because you are presenting yourself as an expert (even though you give no reason to trust your authority on the subject), most people who stumble across this post will probably accept what you say without further investigation. And then they will pass on what they have learned, thus perpetuating the cycle of misinformation.

    For a communications major, you should really understand the importance of what you are trying to do, and take a little more pride in doing it well. So far, it seems you are going for quantity over quality. Well, no one cares if you religiously post every single day if what you are posting is badly written and poorly researched. Take more time to provide sources and to really explain what you mean when you say things, rather than assuming that everyone has the same world view as your own. While you may not be able to command attention the way major networks can, you are still putting information out into the ether, and with that comes a responsibility to ensure that that information is worthwhile, or at least reliable. Can you honestly say that this is?

    P.S. One of your links is not embedded properly. Tsk, tsk. Sloppy writing AND sloppy editing.


    • Hi there! I do appreciate your detailed comment about my post, and the time you took to craft it. In fact, I feel I have learned something about agenda setting by your post alone. It’s clear that you know a great deal about the topic.
      I don’t tend to defend myself much, but I will say this. My blog will never be the full authority on the latest and greatest academic theories. In fact, I rarely write about communication theory at all. Many of my blog posts are more about optimism, capturing the important little things in life, and thinking about big questions. Essentially, I try to write artistically and creatively with my blog. This post was a follow-up to a post about my, in my opinion much stronger, post about the Confederate Battle Flag controversy. It exists to give people some idea about why the issue has blown up to such massive proportions. As you know, I used very broad brush strokes when talking about agenda setting, and a post I wrote in an hour would not compare at all to a well-researched essay I would write in a class. Communications is a massive field, and as a second-year Master’s student, I am by no means an expert on all things about human interaction.
      As for the world-view thing, I’d like to think my posts prove that I am not at all conceited about having the only relevant paradigm. I try to get my audience to look at things in different ways with every posts. I encourage you to check out some additional blog posts of mine, such as this one on the importance of now.
      Finally, I fixed the link, so thanks for letting you know.
      Nice to meet you. If you have a blog, I’d love to read yours! Thanks again.


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