Public Affairs and Agenda Setting:

Passive On-Lookers or Active Participants?
Literature Review


     As early as 1922, newspaper columnist Walter Lippman reflected on the power of the new media to present images to the public. Lippman believed the experiences of the average person was limited and the media provided a view of the outside world (1922). Long (1958) and Lang and Lang (1959) asserted media power over what people talk about, think about, feel about and the way problems should be dealt with. Political scientist Bernard Cohen (1963, p. 13) summed up the early study of media agenda-setting succinctly when he noted that the media "may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling people what to think about. Early research focused on attitude and behavior change from media generated awareness and presentation of information and found very limited influence (Infante, Rancer & Womack, 1997).  

     The seminal empirical study of agenda-setting theory was McCombs’ and Shaw’s (1972) study of the mass media and its effect on public opinion during the 1968 presidential campaign. Their focus was on awareness and information, not attitude or behavior change. They assert those editorial decisions by newspapers and broadcasters play an important role in shaping political reality. Media observers not only learn about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue. Importance is manifested through the amount of information in a news story and its placement in the newspaper or broadcast cycle. Therefore, in reporting what candidates are saying during a campaign, mass media may well determine the important issues through editorial decisions, thus setting the agenda (McCombs & Shaw, 1972).  

     Published nearly contemporaneously with McCombs and Shaw (1972) was a study conducted by Funkhouser (1973) who looked at the relationship between public opinion and media content. He conducted a content analysis of the three major newsmagazines: Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report for each year of the 1960s focusing on the major issues of the decade. Funkhouser (1973) found a strong correlation between the issues the public thought important and the issues the newsmagazines were giving coverage to. These results were consistent with agenda-setting theory; however, the causal direction was still a question. Perhaps it was the publics’ interests that were setting the media agenda (Severin & Tankard, 1997).  

     The concept of "framing" developed in the early 1980s to describe how the media can focus attention on an issue. Lang & Lang (1983) studied the relationship between the press and public opinion during the Watergate era and suggest that more complicated issues go through a process of agenda-building. They find that putting the issue in a frame of reference over time, using language that could be easily understood, gave the issue clarity to the public at large. Finally, greater importance will be place on the issue by the public if a well-known person discusses the issue (Lang & Lang, 1983). 

     Stone and McComb (1981) conducted a study to determine how long it takes for media content to have an effect on the public’s awareness. They studied public opinion data and media content over an extended time period and show that a period of two to six months is necessary for issues to crystallize from the media agenda to the public agenda. Other studies showed shorter time spans but could have been affected by the importance of the issue to the public (Winter & Eyal, 1980; Shoemaker, Wanta & Leggett, 1989). Understanding time span is important for public affairs professionals. Public communications campaigns can be planned better if it is understood how long it takes to raise an issue into public awareness Severin & Tankard (1997). 

     Just who sets the media agenda and what makes it change? Westley (1976) suggests that in some instances pressure from special interest groups can elevate an issue onto the media agenda. Another influence is the effect of elite media such as The New York Times on other media. Danielian and Reese (1989) refer to this as intermedia agenda-setting. This process was well-documented in Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus (1973) which document the press coverage of the 1972 presidential election campaign. Reporters from other news media looked over the s