Posted by: Nathan Dinsdale | October 17, 2011

Setting the Agenda

In his analysis of the “Agenda-Setting Role of the Mass Media,” Maxwell McCombs states that his use of the word “agenda” is purely descriptive and not an inference that news organizations have ulterior motives for shaping the public discourse. It would seem McCombs wasn’t privy to the current incarnations of Fox News and MSNBC.

The resurgence of partisan media is just one part of what makes the articles by McCombs and Elihu Katz of limited use in understanding an era where the media’s influence on individuals is both patently obvious and amazingly complex. Unquestionably, the media “agenda-setting” that McCombs describes and the sway held by Katz’s “opinion leaders” have an impact on how the “pictures in our head” are created. But so do many other factors.

I would submit that McCombs’ “agenda-setting” is what journalists simply call “news judgment.” Partisan media aside, I would argue that “news judgment” is determined by three factors: observation, publicity and the public. Journalism is primarily a reactive profession. For better or worse, often the loudest voices and most conspicuous displays gather most of the attention. Media outlets with a national or global scope have arguably the most discretion in what issues are brought to the forefront, but it’s ultimately the perception of “public interest” that dictates content.

In today’s “convergence culture,” the level of influence depends more on the consumer than the producer. To say that our ideas are formed by the media and opinions we consume is to say that oxygen impacts our position on respiration. We gather information. What we gather and how we interpret is ultimately of more importance than who delivered it. McCombs acknowledges that individual media consumers ultimately determine what is relevant to them. And while the media still has the capacity to introduce people to specific agenda items, the degree of influence can be overstated.

To wit, I would hazard to say that 80-90 percent of people who plan to vote a year from now in the 2012 election already know for what (if not whom) their vote will be. And all the interim cacophony of media agenda-setting and opinion leaders will have little influence over that.

Discussion Questions:
-Which had more influence on you in the debate over health care reform: McCombs’ media “agenda-setting” or the “opinion leaders” in Katz’s analysis of peer influence?
-Is the notion that the U.S. is a country bitterly divided by ideological differences apparent at face value or is that concept something that could be manifested by media “agenda-setting” as McCombs describes it?

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