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Agenda Setting Theory

Agenda Setting Theory

The Agenda setting theory was posited by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw (McCombs & Shaw, 1972 pp.180-181). The theory states that the concerns of people as per what they discuss, think and worry about are inspired and directed by what the mass media choose to publicise.  The concept of agenda setting, though an hypothesis then, is linked to Walter Lippmann (1922), a popular American journalist and scholar of the Harvard University. He carried out a study to find out how the media determine public opinion on topical issues. He found from his study that the members of the public do not necessarily respond to the actual events that occur in society, but to the pictures and images of those events reported by the media which in turn create images in man`s mind (McCombs, 2002, pp. 1-2).

Pondering more on Lippmann`s postulations on the issue of agenda setting capability of the mass media, in the year 1961 Cohen (1963) declared that “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”. Cohen argues that the world looks different to different people depending on what the media offer to the public. This assumption later created the basis of what is now call the agenda-setting function of the media (Du, 2008, p.4). Cohen is of the opinion that it is whatever the media concentrate their reportage on that eventually becomes the talking point of the public. In other words, media reports correspond with the general topic of discussion in any society. This is understandable due to the fact that citizens of nations always depend on the media for information about different issues taking place in the society.

However, the agenda setting theory was birthed in 1972 by McCombs and Shaw (1972) who really confirmed the reality and functionality of the agenda setting theory having carried out an enduring research during the United States of America`s Presidential election in 1968 which focused on ‘awareness’ and ‘information’. They explicitly examined the relationship between the media reports of the 1968 election campaign in Chapel Hill and the issues the members of the public later discussed about the elections. The twosome unearthed the strong relationships that exists between the emphasis placed on different campaign issues by the media and the judgments of the electorate as it relates to the importance of various campaign topics,

According to Ekeli (2006), citing Severin and Tankard, the agenda setting (function) theory explains the capacity of the mass media to select and emphasis certain issues (priming) and thereby cause these issues to be important.  Deriving from this assumption, Akakwandu (2016) states this theory is premised on two basic assumptions, which are, that “the press and the media do not reflect reality, they filter and shape it”; and that, “media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issue as more important than other issues” (p. 211).

The study of the effects of news media coverage on public opinion is one area of mass communication research problem, and news priming (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987) theory is one of the theories that have been relatively successful in demonstrating that the independent variable influences the dependent variable. Iyengar (1991) categorically says that “while agenda setting reflects the impact of the news coverage on the perceived importance of national issues, priming refers to the impact of news coverage on the weight assigned to specific issues in making political judgement”. According to Glynn, Herbst, O’Keefe and Shapiro (1999, p. 390), news priming involves “drawing greater attention to some aspects of an issue at the expense of others.”


Lippmann, Walter. (1922). Public opinion. New York: Macmillan. New York: Free Press.

McCombs, Maxwell E. & Shaw, Donald L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media, Public Opinion Quarterly, 36 (2): 176-187 University of Derby. Retrieved on 1/5/2018 from http:

Du, Y. R. (2008). Mass media’s agenda setting function in the age of globalisation: A multi-national agenda-setting test. PhD Dissertation, University of North Carolina. Retrieved on 1/5/2018 from

Guanah, J. (2018). Sources Of Exposure To Daddy Freeze’s Comments On Tithing And Its

Influence On Tithe Payers In Select Pentecostal Churches. A Ph.D seminar paper, department of Mass Communication, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Anambra State, Nigeria.

Iyengar, S. & Kinder, D. R. (1987). News that Matters: Television and American Opinion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Iyengar, S. (1991). Is anyone responsible? How television frame political issues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ekeli, E. O. (2006, September). “The media, society and parliamentary  reporting” Paper presented at a two-day workshop for Journalists and principal staff of  Delta State House of Assembly, Asaba, 28th& 29th.

Akakwandu, Chimaraoke (2016). Introduction to political communication. Benin City: Izehi Printing Press.




About Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a writer with passion for cutting-edge news

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