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Last updated February 14, 2001


Mass Communication Context
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Agenda Setting Theory

Explanation of Theory:

The Agenda-Setting Theory says the media (mainly the news media) arenít always successful at telling us what to think, but they are quite successful at telling us what to think about.

Theorist: Maxwell McCombs and Donald L. Shaw

Date:  1972/1973

Primary Article:

  McCombs, M., & Shaw, D.L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of the mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176-185.

Individual Interpretation:

This theory is good at explaining why people with similar media exposure place importance on the same issues.  Although different people may feel differently about the issue at hand, most people feel the same issues are important. 


The Agenda-Setting Theory comes from a scientific perspective, because it predicts that if people are exposed to the same media, they will place importance on the same issues.  According to Chaffee & Bergerís 1997 criteria for scientific theories, Agenda-Setting is a good theory. 

  •  It has explanitory power because it explains why most people prioritize the same issues as important.
  •  It has predictive power because it predicts that if people are exposed to the same media, they will feel the same issues are important.
  •  It is parsimonious because it isnít complex, and it is easy to understand.
  •  It can be proven false.  If people arenít exposed to the same media, they wonít feel the same issues are important.
  •  Itís meta-theoretical assumptions are balanced on the scientific side
  •  It is a springboard for further research
  •  It has organizing power because it helps organize existing knowledge of media effects.

Actions surrounding the O.J. case and the Clinton Scandal are both excellent examples of Agenda-Setting in action.  During these historic events, the media was ever-present.  The placement of full page, color articles and top stories on news programming made it clear that Americans should place these events as important issues.  Some people believed O.J. was guilty, and others believed he was innocent.  Some believed Clinton should have been impeached, and others thought otherwise.  Therefore, the media wasnít extremely successful in telling us what to think on these issues, but most Americans did believe these were both important issues for a long period of time.

More Research on Agenda Setting:

     Brosius, H., & Kepplinger, H. M. (1990). The agenda-setting function of television news: Static and dynamic views. Communication Research, 17, 183-211.

     Kosicki, G. (1993). Problems and opportunities in agenda-setting research. Journal of Communication, 43(2), 100-127.

     Winter, J.P., & Eyal, C.H. (1981). Agenda-setting for the civil rights issue. Public Opinion Quarterly, 45, 376-383.

Agenda-Setting in Texts:

     Infante, D. A., Rancer, A.S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect, Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, Inc., 365-367, 453-454.

     Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 337, 375, 376-386, 476, 484, 496.

     Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill, 309, 349, 476, 360 Ė372, 375.

     Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martinís Press, 252.

     Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed.). Albuquerque, NM: Wadsworth Publishing, 345-348.

     Cragan, J.F., & Shields, D. C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces of human action. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 10, 264,-265, 281, 313.