According to the original version of the agenda-setting theory, the media determine what we think about. More recent developments of the theory argue that the media set our agenda on two levels: not only do the media determine what we think about, but they also influence how we think about the topics.
Historical Evolution of the Theory
McCombs and Shaw are credited as formally developing the agenda-setting theory. Indeed, they are the first researchers to use the term ‘agenda setting.’ However, the practice of agenda-setting had existed since the penny press in the 1830s, well before McCombs and Shaw coined the term. Furthermore, they have also drawn from the work of some of the earlier theorists of the practice of agenda-setting.
Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922)
In his 1922 book, Lippmann critically evaluates the functioning of the democratic institution. He argues that the average person should not be entrusted with important and key political decisions. The average person is unable to take into consideration all elements of her/his environment: s/he can neither perceive all elements of the environment nor interpret them correctly. Instead, the average person only remembers pictures s/he has in her/his head. As a consequence of this inability to see the whole picture, each person has a biased and subjective perception of the world. Although we all live in the same ‘actual’ world, we each, according to Lippmann, think and feel as if we were living in different ones.
Lippmann observed mass media played a critical role in determining the difference between the actual environment and the images the average person has of the environment. He concluded the government or another body in power should make all the important decisions in order to protect the average person. Lippmann’s scholarship has played a formative role in the fields of media studies and political sciences.
McCombs has often quoted or referred to Lippmann’s phrase ‘pictures in our heads’ in his publications and explanations of agenda-setting.
Bernard Cohen’s The Press and Foreign Policy (1963)
Cohen further developed and refined Lippmann’s ideas. In practice, he developed them into the first theory of agenda-setting. However, he never used the term agenda setting. Cohen’s work was produced within the limited effects paradigm. However, he could not deny that the media influenced the issues that then became the pictures in our heads, or the topics we talk about.
In his book, Cohen was interested in the manner in which the press influenced the formation of foreign policy. For example, let us consider a newspaper. How much of the news is devoted to local and national issues? How much of the news is devoted to international issues? It is common practice that international news constitutes only about 10% or less of the news. This is not because there are fewer international issues. In fact, the opposite is true. Instead, it indicates that the media tailor the news in order to grab the attention of more people, who will in turn, buy more newspapers.
After a series of interviews with journalists and policy-makers, Cohen reaches the conclusion that the press does not present analytical material for the interested reader to better grasp various issues. Instead, the press presents a version of the news accessible to a wider audience but lacking the required critical analysis to allow readers to reach their own conclusions. A significant portion of this wider audience depends on the watered-down version of the news produced by the press to form their opinion about foreign policy.
As Cohen writes, “it [the press] may not be successful in telling its readers what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about. And it follows from this that the world looks different to different people, depending not only on their personal interests, but on the map that is drawn for them by the writers, editors and publishers of the papers they read” . In simple terms, Cohen argues that the media decide for us the topics we think about. At the same time, he recognizes the media are unable to tell media consumers what to think about those topics.