Researchers have long been intrigued by the media's effect on the national agenda, and how public opinion is formed. Several theories have been proposed to address this phenomenon. In this capstone, we examined two theories: agenda-setting and cultivation.
Conceptualized over time, agenda-setting is the dynamic process "in which changes in media coverage lead to or cause subsequent changes in problem awareness of issues" (Brosius & Kepplinger, 1990, p. 190; Lang & Lang, 1981). Bernard Cohen's statement in 1963 predicted "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" (p.13). Whether social or political, local or national, public issues are generated by the media. Consumers not only learn about an issue "but also how much importance is attached to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position" (McCombs & Shaw, 1972, p. 176). McCombs and Shaw's study of mediated affects on the 1968 presidential campaign nullified previous assumptions that information and how it is presented has an attitudinal effect inducing behavior changes. Their groundbreaking efforts focused on issue awareness and relevance not behavior and attitude, concluding "the mass media exerted a significant influence on what voters considered to be the major issues of the campaign" (Infante, et al., 1997, p. 366).
Media drives agenda. Funkhouser (1973) focused his attention on the major issues for each year in the 1960s and further concluded that media agenda drives public agenda, and real-world indicators are less strongly associated with issue salience and media attention (Funkhouser, 1973; Dearing & Rogers, 1996). Triggering devices, surmise Cobb and Elder (1972), cue action during a point in time and propel an issue up the policy agenda. Examples of this phenomena are the War on Drugs campaign; the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and accompanying environmental issues; and the 1984 Ethiopian famine where NBC broadcast the first pictures of starving children on the evening news triggering massive news coverage for the next 10 months (Dearing & Rogers, 1996). Ironically, during the time of the Ethiopian crisis, Brazil was simultaneously experiencing the worst drought in its history. While the United States and other international governments provided aid, musicians organized benefits raising tens of millions of dollars for food aid, and the news media scrambled to cover the Ethiopian famine, the Brazilians suffered without "international fanfare" (Dearing & Rogers, 1996, p. 70). Logistics proved to be the Brazilians' downfall because "feeding stations were spread across a vast territory, rather than being crowded together, as in Ethiopia," where children lay dying together in concentrated areas convenient for news cameras (Dearing & Rogers, 1996, p. 69). Without pictures there was no story (Boot, 1985).
Empirical research of agenda-setting theory and broadcast content shows issue status and increased public concern are particularly influenced by television's "visual realism and affective appeal" (Ibelema & Powell, 2001, p. 42). "People are more likely to believe what they see. And attractive people as reporters and anchors are much more on display on television than in newspapers" (p. 42).
Media influence. Gitlin (1980) suggests that mass media influence has become the principle distribution system of ideology. People are only familiar with their own "tiny regions of social life" (Gitlin, 1980, p. 1), and that the mass media brings simulated reality into their lives and people find themselves relying on those sources to provide a conceptualized image of the real world.
While agenda-setting theory has its critics, the media's influence is no more evident than in the coverage of events since September 11. National polls by Gallup and the Pew Research Center reflect the public rates U.S military members as "high" to "very high" on honesty and ethics, and the public is solidly behind the military and the president in the "War on Terrorism" (Gallup, 2001; Hickey, 2002).
Hawkins and Pingree expand the study. Hawkins and Pingree (1980) attempted to expand on Gerbner's cultivation theory hypothesis by looking at the learning processes involved. They examined the relationship of cultivation "under a variety of social and psychological conditions and attempting to tie cultivation more directly to individual types of television content" (Hawkins & Pingree, 1980, p. 201). Their research focused on demographic conditions that included age and viewing habits and psychological conditions that included cognitive ability and perception of television reality. Their research confirmed Gerbner's argument that television content and message contribute to viewer biases or perceptions (Hawkins & Pingree, 1980). Additionally, they discovered cultivation theory could not be explained away by researched conditions. However, the results of their research indicate age or cognitive ability determines cultivation (Hawkins & Pingree, 1980).
Criticisms of cultivation theory. Although early data supported cultivation theory, researchers still criticized Gerbner's hypothesis (Infante et al., 1997). Critics such as Michael Hughes (1980) and Paul Hirsch (1980) believed Gerbner's research was flawed and oversimplified. Hughes felt television in American society may be related to the diffusion of culture and to alterations in social structure, both of which affect the behavior of virtually all persons regardless of how much television they watch (Hughes, 1980). Hughes (1980) and Hirsch (1980) reanalyzed Gerbner's research using the same techniques Gerbner used. However, Hughes reexamined the researched demographics of sex, age and income by introducing confounding variables such as hours worked per week, income and church attendance. After reanalyzing Gerbner's data using those confounding variables, Hughes (1980) and Hirsch (1980) discovered the relationship between fear and frequency of television viewing behaviors disappeared. Additionally, Hughes' research disputed Gerbner's assertion that television content is so violent it causes heavy viewers to perceive violence as reality (1980). Hughes did support the need for research to determine the long-term effects of heavy media exposure. However, Hughes added, "some of the more subtle effects might be more apparent only if we knew precisely what people watched and were able to control for predetermined personality and other characteristics which are related to the selection of certain kinds of programs" (Hughes, 1980, p. 300). Hirsch (1980) concluded cultivation theory was unsupported, unwarranted, and premature.
Gerbner's response. In response to Hughes and others' criticisms, Gerbner and his associates pioneered the factors of mainstreaming and resonance (Infante et al., 1997). Mainstreaming is defined as creating uniform messages to appeal to a wide audience (Cohen & Weimann, 2000). According to Cohen and Weimann (2000), mainstreaming is a process where television viewers "learn facts about the real world from observing the world of television" (p. 3). The second term defined by Gerbner is resonance. Resonance is the comparison between the mainstream constructs and the viewer's real-life experiences (Cohen & Weimann, 2000, p. 3).
This theory can be applied to all television show genres including dramas, soap operas, and violence. In a study completed by Patiwael and Valkenberg (1998), the researchers applied this theory to studying how excessive exposure to Court TV—a courtroom drama played by real people with real cases and not actors—led viewers to believe crime was worse than it actually was in reality (p. 229). Gerbner called this the "Mean-World Syndrome" (Chang & Reber, 2000, p. 4). The Mean-World Syndrome results when a person is exposed to an inordinate amount of television violence. This causes them to perceive the real world as a mean, violent place (Chang & Reber, 2000). Gerbner and his team also identified the three variables that comprise the Mean-World Syndrome: People in general only care about themselves, you can never be too careful when interacting with others, and people will take advantage of another person if given the chance (Chang & Reber, 2000).
Military use of cultivation theory. While cultivation theory attempts to explain the effects heavy television viewing has on an individual's perception of reality, the researchers in this study feel this and agenda-setting theory can be applied to how individuals perceive the military. If public affairs professionals are able to obtain positive coverage of their unit or military service, then it is possible to positively influence public perception of the military. This positive influence is instrumental in gaining public support for military actions, funding for housing, and support for quality of life initiatives for military members and their families. While the military enjoys extensive positive media coverage today, the question is how long will it last, and how will public affairs professionals maintain the high level of trust Americans have in the institution? The researchers posit in this experiment that taking advantage of the media's propensity to set the public agenda and a concentrated effort at the local level to make sure their unit or service receives the most coverage possible is the answer. By heavily publicizing the accomplishments of military units and armed forces now, public affairs professionals can present a positive image of the military that will continue after the publicity wanes.