Overview of the Theory
Donald Shaw and Maxwell McCombs developed the agenda setting theory in the 1970s, suggesting that media has a significant impact on shaping public agenda. The mass media achieves this through influencing people’s thoughts rather than actually telling them what to think, and consequently, how to act (McCombs, 2013). This paper examines the theory and explores the current topics of interest and the issues, which have not been previously examined.
The foundation of the agenda setting theory is the premise that the media can affect the cognitive change and the structure of a person’s thinking. The theory’s basis represents the most significant effect of mass communication, which is the capacity to order and organize our mental perspectives. The two underlying assumptions form the basis for the viewpoint advanced by the agenda-setting theory are that firstly, the media does not portray the reality, but virtually filters and shapes it, and secondly, the information channels concentrate on a few issues leading to the public perception of them as more important compared to others (Johnson, 2013).
The agenda-setting theory is a suitable approach to the improvement of understanding about the pervasive role of the media. It incorporates three essential and pertinent variables to achieve the above mentioned results. Initially, the public agenda is the variable relating to the issues highlighted by the media and having an impact on the process of thinking of the public. The media agenda focuses on the particular impact the media has on its target audience. Lastly, the policy agenda focuses on how the television, internet, radio and printed information sources and public agendas influence the decision-making tendencies by prominent policy makers (McCombs, 2013).
The theory has a well grounded scientific basis. Thus, it predicts that the exposure of the public to the same media implies that they will also attach the importance to similar issues paying more attention to them when these are broadcast or printed regularly. The perspective provides the agenda-setting theory with credibility, which is attributable to various reasons (Brubaker, 2008). Firstly, it can explain why the majority of people prioritize similar issues with the same importance. Besides, the theory has a powerful predictive capacity as it determines the priorities of an audience depending on the prominent media content. Additionally, it is a prudent approach being simple to understand and easy to prove whether it is false. People will view a variety of issues as important when they subscribe to different media. Finally, the theory’s assumptions, which are meta-theoretical in nature, are balanced from a scientific perspective. The theory forms a foundation for additional research and has an organization power because it systematizes the knowledge on the effects of the media.
Current Research Topics
Over the years, technological advancements have led to an increase in the adoption of social and digital media platforms. The transition from traditional media has resulted in the interest in the effect of the agenda setting theory on the relationship between the new media channels and their target audience (Johnson, 2013). The discourse is significant due to the major shift from the conventional vertical media, which is restrictive regarding the accessibility to general information, towards the horizontal new one, having opened the access to information and challenged traditional roles.
The agenda setting theory is a long-standing and reputable theory, which is still applicable in information sources and communication. However, there is a lack of unanimity on the applicability of some of its central concepts in this new age of information. For instance, some people have questioned how beneficial the theory is regarding its utility within the new environment. The new forms of media present more freedom in obtaining information from numerous and fragmented sources. Coleman and McCombs (2007) conducted a study involving the people of different generations and accustomed to various forms of media, which established that the agenda-setting impact is still inherent irrespective of the kind of the media adopted by the users. However, Brubaker (2008) found that the internet users had the views different from those who utilized general media resources and thus, concluded that the agenda-setting framework is not applicable when the users have an expanded freedom of choice.
The agenda setting theory has undertaken and supported numerous studies since its development, which vary from a broad range of topics and fields. Apart from the investigations focusing on political issues and conventional media, the recent focus on new forms of it demonstrates its heuristic nature. The transition from traditional to social media such as Facebook and Twitter has bridged the gap between the mass media and the public, as it can be easily observable, contributing to the information provided, commenting on it and sharing messages as long as they have an interest in it. What is more, digital media era has enabled any individual to create the content based on their personal standpoints.
Agenda Setting Theory and Social Media
The agenda setting theory is based on the capacity of news media to influence the importance of topics perceived by the public (McCombs, 2013). Consequently, the covering of prominent and frequent news items will result in the audience regarding and subsequently reacting to more important issues. However, the expansion of online means is continually challenging the relevance of the concept of the theory, especially in the context of the horizontal forms of media. In this case, the audience has additional liberty on the choice of media to subscribe to; thus, it complicates the setting of the agenda as people may have a range of distinctive interests by following different kinds of media. Therefore, there is a need to determine how the selective exposure, as well as the differential nature of the use of new media, influences the public, especially when the motivation to consume and share similar ideological information is attributable to partisan inspirations.
It is extremely important to determine how the theory fits into the new dynamics of the individualized media choices of today and mark the differences in the selection of news media from a general public and a private perspective. Since the audience has an expanded role, the media does not itself frame the story, but rather encourages and expects a consumer to act as a gatekeeper because of the additional liberty provided by the internet to certain authors and reporting information as a whole. Moreover, skeptical consumers often browse through numerous sources in their pursuit of “the truth” even though what they eventually find is in the prevailing majority of cases not necessarily true, but it created just to attract the attention of an interested viewer, listener or reader to the data relevant to the authors. Therefore, there is an element of selective perception, in which the audience can find a “truth” that is customizable to their initial beliefs, desires, or requests. Therefore, it is important to determine the level of impact of the individual media regarding mass media in the context of agenda setting. Besides, there is the need to establish the impact of the new media on critical sources due to the opening of ideas’ marketplace and including varied viewpoints on important subjects.
The evaluation of these issues requires a different approach. The current society seems to comprise the homogenous groups that seek similar media content. However, there is a possibility that the identification with such groups may be superficial, resulting in a lack of necessary commitment to determine the impact of media on setting “public” agenda. Therefore, such studies should focus on the identification of distinct units of analysis, which is achievable by targeting online communities, which share and contribute to particular topics. The engagement that is inherent in such communities encompasses the dialogues in which the participants are both producers and consumers. Nonetheless, the affiliation of most individuals with a certain community implies the adoption of its agenda. Hence, it should be interesting to determine how the interconnectedness of new media affects the agenda setting theory from the individualized perspective.
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