Lesson 1: Media’s Agenda Setting Role

Media play a central role in setting and shaping the public agenda—the individuals, issues, events, and topics that are seen as vital to society and public interest.

At the heart of media’s agenda setting is the premise that media do not necessarily tell us what to think, but they do tell us what to think about.

The foundational agenda setting study found—in researching the 1968 presidential election—that the issues voters felt were most important to the country closely matched media coverage of the election. In other words, the study found strong evidence that media played an important role in setting the agenda for the election; the issues media reported most were the same as what voters considered to be most important. The authors explained, “The media are the major primary sources of national political information; for most, mass media provide the best—and only—easily available approximation of ever-changing political realities”. Certainly the ways in which we get our news has changed drastically since 1968, but decades of agenda setting research have supported agenda setting’s premise. Media help parse out for the public the issues they need to know when forming attitudes. Media set the agenda for public discourse.

Next Page: Second-level Agenda Setting