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Agenda Setting

PA 598D February 19, 2008

Agenda setting is

The process by which problems and alternative solutions gain or lose public and elite attention. A fierce competition because government and society cannot consider every issue at once--our carrying capacity for dealing with every issue is too small

Why is agenda setting so important?

E. E. Schattschneider summed up the importance of this agenda-setting role of the media when in 1960 he wrote, The definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power.(found at, quoting The Semisovereign People) Control over the agenda means control over outcomes Agenda setting is therefore about getting on the agenda, and about keeping things from it.

Levels of the agenda


Any idea out there Some are out of bounds politically

Systemic: Ideas that are taken up by the system

Levels of the agenda


Multiple institutional agendas Overlap, but are not congruent Evidence: bills, calendars, agendas, etc.

Decision: Where a choice is made

Levels of the agenda

How do issues reach the agenda? Cobb and Elder

The creation of issues

Manufacturing of issues: readjustors Manufacturing of issues for their own gain: exploiters Unanticipated events: circumstantial reactors (what we generally now call focusing events Do-gooders

Triggering Devices


Natural catastrophe Unanticipated human event Technological change Actual bias in resource distribution Ecological Change

Triggering Devices


War: U.S. as direct combatant Innovations in weapons technology Indirect role in international conflict

Issue initiation and triggers

The dynamic interplay between the initiator and the trigger device A link must be made between a grievance (or a triggering event) and an initiator who converts the problem into an issue Note that not all triggers work the same way, as I note in my article

John Kingdon and the Streams Metaphor

Kingdons Streams Metaphor

Focusing events reveal problems

Screen clipping taken: 4/2/2005, 1:26 PM

Other ways of thinking about how issues reach the agenda

Group reactions to other groups actions/success Leadership activity Crises and Focusing Events Protest movements Media coverage or activity Changes in indicators Political changes

The relationship between the policy agenda and the media agenda

Media coverage can lead to increased public concern But, Kingdon found that the media didnt drive the agenda in some fields But, the media has considerable power to set the agenda after focusing events

The special role of focusing events

a rare, sudden, well-known, actually or potentially harmful event. Tend to induce sudden attention to issues Can trigger intensive group interest and activity Focusing events can fade fast on the agenda.

Agenda setting and problem framing

The agenda space is limited in two ways

The number of items on the agenda The number of ways to define the problems on the agenda The items themselves The issues being discussed

Agenda competition is therefore about

Case Study: Why do kids do violence in schools?

Problem framing

Why do kids end up doing violent acts in schools? What are your candidate explanations?

Some data: Lawrence and Birkland 2004

See handout

Groups and Power

We all know that some groups have more power than others What is power? Why do some groups have more power than others? How does this relate to agenda setting?

The Importance of Power

Politicswho gets what Powerthe ability to get what you want and to prevent others from getting power

Three levels of power

An actor (A) makes actor B do something he or she doesnt want to do A keeps B from doing the things he or she wants to do. These are what we call the two faces of power. What about the third face of power?

The Third Face of Power

A creates and maintains a social structure in which B cannot even imagine taking action to pursue his or her own interests. This sounds like a conspiracy (or Marxist false consciousness but is more subtle than this. This is a good way to describe power relations in the United States.

Differences in group power

Money Information

Size of membership Reasons for membership

Direct economic incentives Material inducements

Congruence of goals with prevailing ideas and values

Conclusion The Agenda and Power

What sort of groups or people have the power to influence the agenda? Why is agenda setting important in gaining and holding power?