The Theory of Agenda Setting and its Function in Mass Media


The theory of agenda setting postulates that mass media does not tell the public what to think, but rather, what to think about. In other words, the disseminators of information to the public mentally order and organize society's agenda of topics and issues. The hypothesis of agenda setting describes mass media as society's "gatekeeper" of information. Media determines which items of information hold significance for society. In doing so, media dictates what exists as newsworthy and what does not. Furthermore, mass media assigns weights of relative importance to the items it deems newsworthy through the emphasis placed upon each item of information (e.g. front page, coverage, color photograph, etc.).

The theory of agenda setting hypothesizes that society, in receiving these emphasized items of information, incorporates such saliences of topics and issues into its circle of cognition. McCombs and Shaw (1977) state: ". . . increase salience of a topic or issue in the mass media influences (causes) a salience of that topic or issue among the public" (12). Succinctly, the social and political priorities of mass media determine the social and political priorities of the public. Mass media groups the various social sets in society, into a common platform through the overlapping exposure of the messages it presents as news (via newspaper, television, magazines, etc.), thus strengthening its determining ability. These overlapping patterns of exposure facilitate the establishment of a national agenda of discussion (Shaw and McCombs, 6).

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