In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Agenda Setting

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Foundational Works
  • Process Components
  • Information Sources
  • Influence Models
  • News Media Types
  • Contingent Conditions
  • Consequences
  • Study Designs
  • Data Analysis
  • Data Archives
  • Online Communication
  • Related Concepts
  • Theoretical Growth

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Communication Agenda Setting
Hans-Bernd Brosius, Alexander Haas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0021


The original idea of the agenda-setting (AS) function of news media is both obvious and convincing. This may have contributed to the fact that AS is one of the most frequently investigated approaches in research on mass media effects. It is based on the assumption that most people, for most issues, have only one way to learn what goes on in the world: the news media. They set the agenda and thus have the ability to influence the perceived importance of issues. In other words, AS scholars assume that increased media coverage of an issue leads to increased public perception of the importance of that issue. News media do not tell people what to think, but rather what to think about. Therefore, it should be the responsibility of the mass media to tell people what problems have to be solved and what issues should be thought about. AS focuses on the cognitive effects of mass media and can be distinguished from research on persuasive effects. Despite the large number of empirical studies, some scholars still see AS more as a metaphor than a structured theory. Its theoretical foundations are criticized for being too simple and rooted in a stimulus-response context. Since the 1990s there have been attempts to link AS to the concepts of framing and priming. Some scholars reacted to these ideas by introducing second-level AS. Such a conceptualization would extend the basic assumption of AS. That broadened concept addresses the question of not only whether news media tell their audience what to think about, but also whether they influence how people think about issues. Early-21st-century developments of online communication have confronted AS with new challenges, both theoretically and methodologically.

General Overviews

With a growing number of empirical studies, increasing attempts have been made to review the literature and systematize the field. One of the earliest sources is Rogers and Dearing 1988. This book chapter is cited especially for explaining AS as a process of interaction among the media agenda, the public agenda, and the policy agenda. Dearing and Rogers 1996 is also based on this differentiation. Kosicki 1993 focuses on methodological and theoretical shortcomings as well as future tasks. At the same time, the “founding fathers” Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw take a look at the past twenty-five years (McCombs and Shaw 1993). They also point to the need for theoretical integration. It is again McCombs who provides an essential and profound overview of the field of research (McCombs 2014). McCombs 2014 identifies new directions, particularly third-level AS and agenda melding. Takeshita 2005 offers an overview of problems in AS research that is still relevant and worth reading. Wanta and Ghanem 2007 is a meta-analysis of about ninety studies.

  • Dearing, James W., and Everett M. Rogers. 1996. Agenda-setting. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    This essential textbook summarizes the field of research. It is organized along the three main components in the AS process: media agenda, public agenda (divided into cross-sectional and longitudinal studies), and policy agenda. The final chapter draws generalizations about the state of research and identifies questions to be addressed in the future.

  • Kosicki, Gerald M. 1993. Problems and opportunities in agenda-setting research. Journal of Communication 43.2: 100–127.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1993.tb01265.x

    This article also starts with a summary of the AS literature and elaborates characteristics of AS studies. The author criticizes the absence of a theoretical connection to a theory of news work as a key failing of public AS studies and reflects on the future of AS research.

  • McCombs, Maxwell E. 2014. Setting the agenda: The mass media and public opinion. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    This book is essential to everyone interested in acquiring an overview of the field of AS research. McCombs provides a comprehensive synopsis of hundreds of studies. Endnotes instead of a bibliography make it a little more difficult to take full advantage of this excellent book.

  • McCombs, Maxwell E., and Donald L. Shaw. 1993. The evolution of agenda-setting research: Twenty-five years in the marketplace of ideas. Journal of Communication 43.2: 58–67.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1993.tb01262.x

    This brief review outlines the historical growth of AS and names four distinct phases of research. In the opening phase, scholars tried to replicate the findings of the “Chapel Hill” study. In the second phase, more studies focused on contingent conditions that enhance or limit the effect. Afterwards new domains such as candidate characteristics were analyzed. Finally, the authors focus on the sources of the media agenda.

  • McCombs, Maxwell E., Donald L. Shaw, and David H. Weaver. 2014. New directions in agenda-setting theory and research. Mass Communication and Society 17.6: 781–802.

    DOI: 10.1080/15205436.2014.964871

    This essay identifies seven facets of AS theory and research. Three of them, third-level AS, need for orientation, and agenda melding, are discussed in greater detail. It describes network AS as a third level of AS theory (i.e., the impact of the networked media agenda of objects or attributes on the networked public agenda).

  • Rogers, Everett M., and James W. Dearing. 1988. Agenda-setting research: Where has it been, where is it going? In Communication yearbook 11. Edited by James A. Anderson, 555–594. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.

    An extended version of this book chapter was later published as a textbook. The text is cited especially for explaining AS as a process of interaction among the media agenda, the public agenda, and the policy agenda. It is suitable for graduate students to demonstrate what the field of work looked like “at halftime.”

  • Takeshita, Toshio. 2005. Current critical problems in agenda-setting research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research 18.3: 275–296.

    DOI: 10.1093/ijpor/edh104

    Addresses current problems of AS research: process, identity, and environment. Process refers to whether AS works automatically or may include deliberate judgments and inferences. Identity questions the necessity of second-level AS. Finally, new media technology could make it hard to identify AS effects or even to determine the media agenda.

  • Wanta, Wayne, and Salma Ghanem. 2007. Effects of agenda-setting. In Mass media effects research: Advances through meta-analysis. Edited by Raymond W. Preiss, Barbara M. Gayle, Nancy Burrell, Mike Allen, and Jennings Bryant, 37–51. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    The authors conducted a meta-analysis of about ninety AS studies. The results show a broad impact of news media on the public agenda. The authors could not identify methodological factors that influence the strength of the effect, but longitudinal studies show larger correlations than cross-sectional studies.

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