Posted by: Clive | August 11, 2008

Setting the agenda

I’ve been doing some reading today on theories of mass communication and in particular refreshing some ideas about agenda-setting. The theory that the mass media have the ability to transfer the importance of particular items on their news agenda to the public agenda was initially explored by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in the 1970s. They conducted empirical research to explore what Bernard Cohen observed in the 1960s:

The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.

This stimulated McCombs and Shaw to look for a cause and effect relationship between what the media say is important and what voters in elections perceive as being important. Although there was a great deal of inconclusive and rather arid debate about whether their work did prove such a relationship, their questioning of how a public agenda is formed in terms of the media, has proved extremely influential.

And it is still very relevant as evidenced by this short video by Alisa Millar:

(Somewhat depressing in that it shows how deeply entrenched the media are and how, as yet, minuscule is the presence of an alternative, citizen journalism and social media ecology.)

McCombs and Shaw also contributed to the question of whether the media go further: whether (and if so, how) they do tell people what to think. They did this through a theory of framing. The basic idea here is that the media not only tells us what to think about – the objects – but also give us a context (the selection, emphasis, exclusion, and elaboration) with which to think about those objects. A good place to start with this idea is the Rockridge Institute, and in particular George Lakoff’s writings. This is a US site and the applications of framing on it tend to be US-centric. However, working through analogy, the contemporary scene in this country provides a rich landscape for research.


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