The realization of the power the media holds over the public agenda was first realized in 1922 through the works of Walter Lippmann, a Harvard graduate and author. In Lippmann’s book, Public Opinion, he speculates that rather than living in reality, we create our own reality or, “the pictures in our heads”. It is this reality that the media sculpts, alters and influences. Lippmann is also known for his criticisms of the imaging people around him were enabling to gain social or political power. He later also founds and edits the magazine, The New Republic.
Almost 40 years pass without significant contribution to the inquiry of media-agenda. In 1963, Bernard Cohen publishes The Press and Foreign Policy in which he memorably states “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.” Between the years of 1968, 1972 and 1976, Maxwell E. McCombs and Daniel L. Shaw conduct research around the Presidential elections taking place in North Carolina; research shows that there is significant correlations between the messages the press sends out regarding the campaigns and what the subjects thought about issues regarding each one. In 1968, their research produces a +.97 correlation between what the media outlines as significant issues in the campaign and what voters thought were significant issues. The following election, in 1972, fosters a 3-wave panel study that took place in Charlotte. The election of 1976 even provided a jump in correlation through a year long, 9 wave panel study: a +.46 correlation is found in early February and by late March it jumps to +.83. Later, in 1986, a Japanese mayoral election in Machida City shows that there is a correlation between agenda set by the media and values in the public with a numerical value of +.39. (McCombs, Agenda-Setting and the Role of Mass media in Shaping Public Opinion) Further research helps bolster theory makers when Ray Funkhouser, in 1973, evaluated the 1960s were evaluated through a Gallup Poll on what the public considered to be the most important news of the time. The correlation between the public agenda and the media agenda was found to be +.78.
The following decade brings significant focus onto a variety of events. For example, in 1981, Chaim Eyal and James Winter conduct research which examines the public concern with civil rights between the years of 1954 and 1976. Their research showed that as the media provides more news on the topic, a correlation of +.71 related how much the public focused on the topic was noticed. Later in the 1980’s a survey is conducted over 42 months on the salience of 11 issues in the news. 10 of the 11 issues show a positive correlation with the news coverage at the time. Interestingly, the only subject that shows a negative correlation of -.44 is morality in society. In 1986, another study is conducted in Germany, which compares the newscasts of four major German news television stations with 53 weekly national polls regarding the public concern for energy supply, East-West relations, European politics, environmental protection, and defense. This particular study uses the newscasts as predictors for issue salience within the public, showing a slight positive correlation. This particular study also shows that issue awareness in society us both fueled by and feeds media coverage, and leads to awareness of issues relying on issues surveyed. Furthering research on television’s effect on the public agenda, Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder publish News that Matters, in 1987 which studies and outlines the precise affect television news has on the American public agenda in the 1980s.
The 1990s provides a plethora of examples regarding of agenda setting within the political scene, including correlation results from several elections around the world. In 1995 the Spanish general election of Pamplona, Spain, a correlation between news stories regarding the election and the voters is found to be extraordinarily positive. Voters correlate concerns between news stories on television +.66, though the Pamplona Daily +.72 and with the most dominant newspapers +.72. This sort of research propels the theory of agenda-setting into an entire new realm of studies. A further experiment conducted on the Argentinean legislative election of 1997 shows that as the media focuses on certain stories and the closer impending elections get, the higher the correlation between what the major newspapers are saying and what the general public is concerned about. In the Buenos Aires metropolitan area, September research showed a +.43 correlation between issues covered in the election by 5 major newspapers and public concern, while October showed a +.80 correlation. Even research in the United States during this time period shows “strong” correlations (+.50 or higher) between coverage during every Presidential election from 1980 until 2000 and the general concerns regarding each election.(McCombs)
Literature produced in the 1990’s also shows us that theory makers, provided with so much more data, were exploring international effects of agenda setting and global issues. In 993, Wayne Wanta and Yu Wei published The Agenda Setting Effect on International News Coverage: An Examination of Differing News Frames. Other authors, such as Joseph M. Colomer, Humberto Llavador, Rune Stubager, Charles Kozel among many more, are exploring the ability to change the agenda being set, for the good of the public. This analytical approach to the research being conducted on agenda-setting expanded the theory, practice and concerns into the questions we see being asked today: are we affected by the media? If so, on what scale? Is this a beneficial or detrimental effect/ How will social media change the future of agenda-setting?
Walter Lippman Biographical Information: