Agenda setting theory

From ArticleWorld

Agenda-setting theory describes the mass media as a tool that influences public opinion by setting the agenda in public discourse. The theory shows how the media affect public opinion, not necessarily by supporting one view over another, but by emphasizing certain issues in the public sphere. According to agenda-setting theory, the news does not tell us what to believe, but it does tell us what issues and debates are worthy of our attention.


A recurrent correlation has been shown between media coverage of an issue and the perceived importance of that issue among the general public. The theory explains this correlation as the result of “media gatekeeping.” This is the controlled, selective system for emphasizing certain stories over others, and for allowing some issues to be discussed in the news while others are not.

There is some debate over whether media gatekeeping is simply a reflection of public opinion, or whether public opinion is actually shaped by it. Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder (1987) have shown, in News that Matters, that the perceived value of a news story is determined largely by certain presentation techniques. In their study, the placement of a story among others and the way it was emphasized had a strong effect on its perceived importance. The priming, or emphasizing of certain facets of politics over others, has a further effect on public opinion. None of these studies have definitively shown a direct causal relationship between media presentation and public opinion. It is still unclear whether we shape the media, the media shape us, or we and the news shape each other, but the correlation is very significant.

There is a broader correlation between the agendas of the media, the public, and policy makers (politicians and public officials). One or two often shape the other. It can be said not only that the media can affect the agenda of public discussion, but also that it can shape public policy.


In 1963, Bernard Cohen was the first to articulate agenda-setting theory in its current form. His ideas were perhaps based on the earlier writings of journalist Walter Lippmann. While Lippman did not use the words “agenda-setting theory” in his writings, his concepts were very similar. According to Lippman, people are more responsive to the pseudo-environment of mental imagery than they are to reality. To Lippman, this meant that the mass media would have a greater effect on public consciousness than the interactions and events of our daily lives.