Agenda setting theory (Maxwell McCombs and Donald L.Shaw)

Discuss the agenda setting theory. Your answer should give background of the agenda setting theory, main findings of the Chapel Hill Study and the need for conducting Charlotte Study.


Agenda setting theory (Maxwell McCombs and Donald L. Shaw)

Media influence affects the order of presentation in news reports about news events, issues in the public mind. More importance to a news-more importance attributed by audience. Media Priorities It says what people should think about and how people should think about.

These are the levels of agenda setting theory:

First Level:

Mostly studied by researchers, media uses objects or issues to influence the people what people should think about.

Second level:

Media focuses on the characters of issues how people should think about.

Agenda setting theory used in political ad, campaigns, business news, PR (public relation) etc.

The main concept associated with the agenda setting theory is gate keeping. Gate keeping controls over the selection of content discussed in the media; Public cares mostly about the product of a media gate keeping. It is especially editors media itself is a gatekeeper. News media decides ‘what’ events to admit through media ‘gates’ on ground of ‘newsworthiness’.

For e.g.: News Comes from various sources, editors choose what should appear and what should not that’s why they are called as gatekeepers.


Activity of the media in proposing the values and standards by which objects of the media attention can be judged. Media’s content will provide a lot of time and space to certain issues, making it more vivid.

To say in simple words, Media is giving utmost importance to a news so that it gives people the impression that is the most important information. This is done everyday the particular news is carried as a heading or covered everyday for months.

Headlines, Special news features, discussions, expert opinions are used.

Media primes a news by repeating the news and giving it more importance E.g. Nuclear deal.


Framing is a process of selective control

Two Meanings

  1. Way in which news content is typically shaped and contextualized within same frame of reference.
  2. Audience adopts the frames of reference and to see the world in a similar way. It is how people attach importance to a news and perceive it context within which an issue is viewed.

Framing talks about how people attach importance to certain news for e.g. in case of attack, defeat, win and loss, how the media frames the news such that people perceive it in a different way.

We can take India and Pakistan war; same happening is framed in different ways in both the countries. So depending on which media you view your perception will differ.

Criticisms of Agenda setting theory is

  • Media users not ideal, people may not pay attention to details.
  • Effect is weakened for people who have made up their mind.
  • Media can’t create problems. They can only alter the awareness, Priority etc.


Findings of the Chapel Hill Study:

As I have mentioned before, the agenda-setting function is a ‘behind-the-scenes’


tactic consistently

performed by the media and thus, it is something we will discusss in our documentary when we argue our point that the media, although they may deny it, are subjective.  An argument is only strong if you can support it with evidence and facts, so in this blog today, I am going to outline a brief research study initiated by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw to prove the agenda-setting function of the press in correlation with the 1968 presidential election in the United States of America.

McComb and Shaw’s was the first attempt at verifying the agenda-setting function.  They used the 1968 presidential election of Hubert Humphrey vs Richard Nixon.   The study used a sample of voters from Chapel Hill, North Carolina and was designed to compare what these voters “said were the key issues of the presidential campaign with the actual content of the news media to which they were exposed during the campaign” (Lowery, S.A. & DeFleur, M.L., 268).  They uses a purposive sample, as they chose to concentrate on undecided voters because if agenda-setting had a strong effect among these vulnerable and “most susceptible” voters, than their hypothesis would possess more legitimacy and merit.

After completing their research, the findings of McCombs and Shaw’s study showed firstly that “among the major stories presented in the media, much of the news about a presidential campaign has little to do with issues. Alot deals with the candidates themselves and assessments of who might win or lose” (269).  I believe that this finding here is not only an example of agenda-setting but also image management that leans toward tabloid journalism.  By focusing on the debate of who is in the lead during the election, the press is using agenda-setting to persuade the audience to vote a specific way because the audience could see that Nixon was in the lead by 20% and rather than doing their own research on his campaign, decide from that poll that he must be the best candidate. Furthermore, the focus on the candidates themselves, such as their appearance, their family, what they do in their spare time, etc is all about the ‘image’ rather than the political, social, and economic issues that should be in the spotlight.



Returning to the findings, McCombs and Shaw discovered a high correlation between the “relative media emphasis and voters’ beliefs about the importance of the same list of issues” (269). This shows that the attention and emphasis given to specific issues in the newspapers and on television during the election, directly affected the voters attitudes and beliefs and their judgements as to the salience of the various campaign topics.

Therefore, McCombs and Shaw were able to prove that there is evidence of agenda-setting in the media using the 1968 campaign as a prime example.  Although the press did not explicitly tell the public what to think about, they did “indicate which issues were to be thought about and which were given the greatest emphasis by the candidates”. (270).  However, at the end of this article, we are reminded that the sample used was only the undecided voters, so if the study were to take place again using a random sample that included registered voters who had decided which candidate they wanted to support early on, then the agenda-setting affect perhaps wouldn’t have been as much of an influence.

McComb and Shaw did follow this 1968 study with another in 1972 when another election came around, which was called the “Charlotte Study”. In this study they used programmatic research and continued on from their Chapel Hill study with the same focus on agenda-setting but used a panel study.  From this study arose strikingly similar results and thus reinforced and legitimized the agenda-setting function of the media.

The Charlotte Study

An important question left open by the original McCombs and Shaw study of agenda set­ting is the question of causal order. The original Chapel Hill study found strong correla­tions between the media agenda and the public agenda during the 1968 election campaign,but it could not show which was influencing which. It is possible that the media agenda was influencing the public agenda, as the hypothesis suggests, but it is also plausible that the public agenda may have been influencing the media agenda.

As their next step in exploring agenda setting, McCombs and Shaw planned an addi­tional study focusing on the 1972 presidential election campaign (Shaw & McCombs, 1977). This study was set in Charlotte, North Carolina. It used a larger sample than the Chapel Hill study, and it was a panel design, with respondents being interviewed at several points throughout the campaign. One of the specific purposes of this study was to obtain evidence concerning the causal direction of agenda setting. The use of a panel design, with several measures repeated through time, would allow some investigation of thp causal se­quence.

In the Charlotte survey, the same random sample of voters was interviewed during June prior to the national political conventions, again in October during the height of the cam­paign, and finally in November when the election returns were in. In order to investigate the causal direction of agenda setting, the authors focused on the two time periods of June and October. For each timfe period, they also had a measure of the media agenda, based on content analysis of the Charlotte newspaper and the evening newscasts of two television networks (CBS and NBC). These data for the two time periods were looked at with a technique known as cross-lagged correlation. The results—for newspapers only—are pre­sented in Figure 12.2.

The key correlations to look at in the diagram are those on the two diagonals. Compar­ing these correlations gives us an indication of the causal sequence. Which correlation is larger, the correlation between newspaper agenda at time 1 and public agenda at time 2, or the correlation between newspaper agenda at time 2 and public agenda at time 1? If the first correlation—the correlation between newspaper agenda at time 1 and public agenda at time 2—is larger, that would provide support for agenda setting. And that is indeed what the figure shows.

The results are not as clear-cut as we might wish. For instance, the high correlation of

June                                                              October


Figure 12.2 • Cross-Lagged Correlation Comparison of Charlotte Voters and the Charlotte Observer in June and October 1972

From d. L. Shaw and M. E. McCombs (eds.), The Emergence of American Political Issues: The Agenda Setting Function of the Press (St. Paul, Minn.: West, 1977), p. 91. Reprinted by permission. Copyright © 1977 by West Publishing Co. All rights reserved.

.94 berween public agenda ai time 1 and public agenda at time 2 is troublesome, as re- seaicher Bruce Westley has pointed out (Westley, 1978). How can there be an agenda- setting effect when the public’s agenda essentially remains unchanged? Furthermore, the cross-lagged correlation analysis for television does not show the support for agenda setting that Figure 12.2 does for newspapers. Nevertheless, the results of the Charlotte study do provide some evidence lor causal direction—that it is likely that the media (or newspapers, at least) do have a causal effect in shaping the public’s agenda, rather than vice versa.

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