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Maxwell McCombs
and Donald Shaw

Maxwell McCombs
Max McCombs is widely
known among
communication scholars,
for he has devoted
almost four decades to
building agenda setting
from a successful
hypothesis into a robust
and popular theory of
how news influences the
salience of issues.
He is currently working
at University of Texas

Donald Leslie Shaw
(born February 11, 1930)
is a writer, literary critic
and the Brown-Forman
Professor of Latin
American Literature at the
University of Virginia.
He graduated from the
University of Manchester
(B.A., M.A.) and the
University of Dublin
He currently lives in Italy,
spending each academic
semester in
Charlottesville, Virginia.

Agenda-Setting Theory
is the theory that the mass-news media
have a large influence on audiences by
their choice of what stories to consider
newsworthy and how much prominence
and space to give them.
Agenda-setting theorys main postulate is
salience transfer. Salience transfer is the
ability of the mass media to transfer issues
of importance from their mass media
agendas to public agendas.

The Original Agenda: Not What to

Think, but What to Think About
McCombs and Shaw believe that the mass media have the
ability to transfer the salience of items on their news agendas
to the public agenda.
We judge as important what the media judge as important.
Pulitzer Prize-wining author Walter Lippmann claimed that the
media act as a mediator between the world outside and the
pictures in our heads.
University of Wisconsin political scientist Bernard Cohen said
that The press may not be successful much of the time in
telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in
telling its readers what to think about.

A Theory Whose Time Had

People would attend only to news and views that
didnt threaten their established beliefs.
Agenda-setting theory boasted two attractive features:
it reaffirmed the power of the press while still
maintaining that individuals were free to choose.
McCombs and Shaws agenda-setting theory
represents a back-to-basics approach to mass
The theorys hypothesis is that there is a cause-andeffect relationship between the media and the public.

Media Agenda and Public Agenda:

A Close Match
Media Agenda
is the set of issues addressed by media sources
Public Agenda
are issues the public consider important.
McCombs and Shaws measured both the media
agenda and public agenda.
Position and length of story two main criteria of
prominence in measuring the media agenda.

What were the results?

Media Agenda:
A composite index of media prominence revealed
the following order of importance:
foreign policy
law and order
fiscal policy
public welfare
civil rights
Public Agenda:
The rank of the five issues was identical to the

What Causes What?

McCombs and Shaw believed that the
hypothesized agenda-setting is responsible for
the almost perfect correlation between the media
and public ordering of priorities:


But as critics of cultivation theory remind us,

correlation is not causation.


McCombs and Shaws findings were impressive

but equivocal.
3 research studies:
1. McCombs and other three researchers
systematically surveyed public opinion at three
locations across the country.
2. Ray Funkhousers historical review study
3. Experiment by Yale researchers
Shanto Iyengar
Mark Peters
Donald Kinder

Who Sets the Agenda for the

Agenda Setters?
News Editors
- these key decision makers are undeniably part of a
media elite that doesnt represent a cross section of
Political Candidates
- considered as the ultimate source of issue
Public Relations Professionals

Interest aggregations
- clusters of people who demand center stage for their
one, over-riding concern, whatever it might be.

Who is Most Affected by the Media

McCombs and Shaw understood that people are not
automatons waiting to be programmed by the news
In their follow-up studies, they used the uses and
gratifications approach, which suggests that viewers
are selective in the kinds of TV programs they watch.
They concluded that people who have a willingness
to let the media shape their thinking have a high
need for orientation arises from high relevance and

Framing: Transferring the Salience of

James Tankard defines media frame as:
the central organizing idea for news content
that supplies a context and suggests what the
issue is through the use of selection, emphasis,
exclusion, and elaboration.
2 levels of agenda setting:
1. the transfer of salience of an attitude object in
the mass medias pictures of the world to a
prominent place among the pictures in our head.
2. the transfer of salience of a dominant set of
attributes that the media associate with an
attitude object to the specific features of the
image projected on the walls of our minds.

Not Just What to Think About, But How

to Think About it
Attribute frames make compelling arguments for the
choices people make after exposure to the news.
Media outlets are constantly searching for material
that they regard as newsworthy. When they find it,
they do more than tell their audiences what to think
The media may not only tell us what to think about,
they also may tell us how and what to think about it,
and perhaps even what to do about it.

Beyond Opinion: The Behavioral Effect

of the Medias Agenda
Some intriguing findings suggest that media
priorities also affect peoples behavior.
Nowhere is the behavioral effect of the media
agenda more apparent than in the business of
professional sports.
McCombs claims Agenda setting the theory can
also be agenda setting the business plan.

Will new media continue to guide

focus, opinions, and behavior?

The power of agenda setting that McCombs and

Shaw describe may be on the wane.

The media may not have as much power to

transfer the salience of issues or attributes as it
does now as a result of users expanded content
choices and control over exposure.

Critique: are the effects too

limited, the scope too wide?

McCombs has considered agenda setting a theory of

limited media effects.
Framing reopens the possibility of a powerful effects
Gerald Kosicki questions whether framing is relevant
to agenda-setting research.
1. McCombs restricted definition of framing doesnt
address the mood of emotional connotations of a
media story or presentational factors.
2. Although it has a straightforward definition within
agenda-setting theory, the popularity of framing as
a construct in media studies has led to diverse and
perhaps contradictory uses of the term.

Agenda-setting research shows that print and

broadcast news prioritize issues.
Agenda-setting theory reminds us that the news
is stories that require interpretation.