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Agenda Setting Theory | Media’s Role in Shaping Public Opinion

One of the most influential theories in Media and Communications is Agenda Setting Theory. This theory says that the news can change what people think is important. The news talks a bunch about specific topics, often because it’s what media bosses want. This article, therefore, explores this important theory in greater detail. It is about going to the roots of it and getting to know what really matters. So, consider it a journey that looks at how it began and what it means for peoples lives. We also see how it plays out in real life with examples, and hear what some people think is wrong with it.

Origins of Agenda Setting Theory

Agenda Setting Theory was first introduced by two scholars, Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw in 1972. And guess what guys? They saw something very interesting. The stuff that the media talked about actually had an impact on what voters cared about. Like, they noticed that when the news was all about things like crime or civil rights, voters started to think those were the big deal issues.

Therefore, the media had a significant effect on what voters saw as important. As a result, McCombs and Shaw construed the idea of Agenda Setting Theory. This idea has now become a really important concept in Media and Communications research today, especially when we are looking at how the media affects people.

Agenda Setting Theory Concepts

Agenda Setting Theory is based on three main concepts:

  • Media Agenda: The media agenda refers to the topics and issues the media chooses to cover. The media can influence public awareness by selecting what topics to inform them of. Also, the coverage to give and what angle to take.
  • Public Agenda: The public agenda refers to the topics and issues the public considers important. The media’s coverage of a variety of topics and issues produces this agenda. When the media devotes significant attention to a particular issue, it becomes more prominent to the public.
  • Policy Agenda: The policy agenda refers to the topics and issues policymakers focus on. Both the media agenda and the public agenda influence the policy agenda. Policymakers are more likely to address issues the media and the public perceive as important.

Effects of Agenda Setting Theory

Agenda Setting Theory has potential effects on society:

  • Framing: The media’s coverage of a topic can affect how the public perceives the issue. For example, the media may frame a crime as an isolated incident or a rare occurrence. Thus, the public may perceive the crime as an anomaly. However, the media can frame the same crime as part of a larger trend. So, in this situation, people might see it as a big problem that needs fixing right away.
  • Priming: The media’s coverage of a topic can also influence how the public evaluates a candidate or issue. Imagine the news keeps talking about what a politician thinks about a certain problem. So, people start judging that politician based on how they handle that issue. It could make folks like or dislike the politician more.
  • Agenda Building: The media can also change the policy agenda by bringing attention to certain issues. For example, if the media devotes significant attention to climate change, policymakers may be more likely to address the issue.

Real-World Examples of Agenda Setting

COVID-19 Pandemic

People have looked at Agenda Setting Theory in different real-life situations. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the media played a significant role and had a big impact on how people viewed the virus. The constant news coverage added to people’s concerns, amplifying their worries. So, to calm everyone down, they made rules like wearing masks, staying apart, and staying home.

Black Lives Matter

In 2020, the media also focused a lot on the Black Lives Matter movement. They talked about the protests and how police treat people of different races unfairly. This made people talk more and demand change right away.

#MeToo Movement

Remember when #MeToo was all over the news in 2017 and 2018? It got a lot of attention for talking about sexual harassment and assault, revealing how widespread it is. Talking about it on TV and online made people think differently about it and pushed for new rules, especially at work. Some big personalities even had to quit their jobs or face lawsuits because of it.

Climate Change

You’ve probably heard all the chatter about climate change, right?  Well, the media has a big influence in that too. They showed us it’s a major issue we need to deal with right now. That’s what got a lot of people considering using renewable energy, reducing pollution, and similar things. And because of all this talk, governments have started making rules to help fix things.

Political Issues

When the news talks about the people running for office and the stuff they care about, it can really change how people think and how they vote. For example, mainstream and alternative media sources faced allegations of Media Bias and influence during the 2016 US Presidential Election. They intensely scrutinised and controversially pressed both candidates. Furthermore, there was much evidence to suggest that 2020 US Presidential Election was also subject to this theory.

Criticisms of Agenda Setting

Despite its widespread acceptance, Agenda Setting Theory has faced criticism. One main criticism of the theory assumes audiences are passive. The media does not easily sway audiences, refuting the idea. Critics argue the public is more active and they can filter, interpret, and even reject media messages on their own accord.

Some people say that Agenda Setting Theory doesn’t take into account other things that can shape what people think. Things like what you believe, what matters to you, and what you’ve been through. They also say the theory doesn’t explain how the media picks what to talk about and we don’t always know why the media chooses certain topics. It could be because someone is pushing them, like politicians, or because they want to make money.


Agenda Setting Theory is a big deal in Media and Communications studies. It’s about how the media’s choice of what to cover can shape what people know and what issues leaders focus on. This theory also really changes how things go in society, like how stuff is shown, what people pay attention to, and how decisions are made. And we can see this theory play out in real life, like during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, showing just how important it is.

But, like anything, Agenda Setting Theory isn’t perfect. Some people say it doesn’t acknowledge how the public make sense of the news on their own, and it doesn’t consider other things that influence what people think. However, even with these complaints, Agenda Setting Theory is still really useful for figuring out how the media influences what we think is significant and what actions result from it.


McCombs, M., & Shaw, D. (1972). The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36(2), 176-187.

McQuail, D. (2010). McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory. Sage.

Scheufele, D. A. (1999). Framing as a Theory of Media Effects. Journal of Communication, 49(1), 103-122.

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