As you have discovered in the previous articles, each theorist who participated in the evolution of the theory contributed a new element, insight, concept or perspective. In this post, you will learn all the key principles of the process and effects of agenda setting.
What to Think About
We rely on the media as a key source of information. We read the newspapers to know what is happening in the country, in the region and overseas. We listen to the radio to hear the stories unfolding in the country and the world. We turn on the television to watch the news in order to gain an overview of local and international events. Yet, none of these sources can cover all aspects of the news. As Cohen explained, foreign news printed in the newspaper is only a small percentage of what happens in the world. Iyengar and Kinder also admitted the television news bulletin is a watered-down version of the news which draws on various elements of television entertainment.
The issues covered by the media and to which the media assign importance to become the issues we consider important. As we talk to family, friends and colleagues about the news, we discuss the stories covered by the media. Agenda setting effects can be even more sinister. In the same manner that the media determine the news stories we discuss among ourselves, the media can also determine the agenda of an electoral campaign by ‘choosing’ the important issues.
Readers’, listeners’ or viewers’ perceptions of the issues important to a country are heavily influenced by the media, more specifically, the issues the media cover. This causality has indeed been confirmed by the experiments conducted by Iyengar and Kinder. However, it is also important to recognize that although the media play an influential role in setting the agenda, they are not alone in determining the agenda of both an election campaign or the general, everyday agenda. The public remains the agent who determines the contribution of the media to agenda setting.
The Monica Lewinsky scandal is an example of the failure of the media in their attempt to set the agenda. Although Lewinsky was the most covered issue across all types of media, the American public refused to allow this extra-marital affair to become the key issue in American politics. This is the reason behind the relatively low negative impact of the Lewinsky scandal on the reputation of Bill Clinton. The bottom line is if the public does not believe a story or issue is relevant, the media will fail in their task of setting the agenda.
Relevancy and Uncertainty: Need for Orientation
As exemplified by the example of the Lewinsky scandal, the correlation between the issues covered by the media and the issues the public considers important varies. McCombs explains this variance through what he terms the need for orientation. Each individual person will have a different need for, what he terms, orienting cues or background information from the media. The concepts of relevancy and uncertainty will determine an individual’s need for orientation.
There are numerous events and issues unfolding in any one country. However, they will not all be relevant to every person in that country. For example, a water supply problem in one specific region will not be relevant to someone who lives far from that area. If relevancy is low, the need for orientation will also be weak. However, if the water supply problem affects the area where a person lives, this issue becomes relevant. In turn, the need for orientation increases. However, relevance alone does not determine the need for orientation
Uncertainty is another key concept when identifying the need for orientation. For example, inflation is relevant to anyone responsible for a household budget. However, in this case, the uncertainty factor will be quite low. Most people know if inflation is high or low based on the price of their weekly or monthly grocery shopping. If relevancy is high but uncertainty low, the need for orientation is moderate.
In some contexts, an issue is very relevant to a person and uncertainty is also high. If there is a cyclone close to the island, the weather becomes highly relevant.