How the Managers of the State and News Media Influence the Public Agenda.
It has been argued that the media may not be successful in telling people what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling people what to think about. This premise is central to a theory developed by communications researchers McCombs and Shaw that the press has a significant agenda-setting function. By studying news media content during the 1968 presidential campaign and comparing it to voters’ perceptions of the key political issues, McCombs and Shaw identified a strong, positive correlation between the emphasis placed on campaign issues by the media and the perceived importance of those topics to voters. The core mechanism operating in the agenda-setting process involves the transfer of salience (i.e., issue importance) from the press to the public. Thus, agenda-setting theory postulates that the news media set the agenda for public discourse (or the public agenda) by specifying which issues are important to consider or think about based on their coverage of particular issues and neglect of others.
Closely related to agenda-setting are the concepts of framing and priming. Framing refers to the way an issue is presented to the public (or “angle” it is given) by the news media. More specifically, framing involves calling attention to certain aspects of an issue while ignoring or obscuring other elements. Significantly, an audience may react very differently to an issue or topic depending on how it is framed by the news media. In contrast, priming is a psychological process whereby the news media emphasis on a particular issue not only increases the salience of the issue on the public agenda, but also activates in people’s memories previously acquired information about that issue. Priming is thus an individual-level factor that can have great variability within a society given past events and news coverage. An example of priming would be the triggering of individual responses such as fear, anger or outrage by Americans to televised images of the 2005 subway terrorist attacks in London, based on the U.S. news media’s prior framing of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
It should come as no surprise that politicians and law enforcement officials (collectively referred to here as state managers) also participate in the agenda-setting process in society. A key way that they do so is through political rhetoric. Webster’s College Dictionary (1997, p. 1114) defines rhetoric as “the art of effectively using language to communicate, including the use of figures of speech.” Political rhetoric involves the effective use of language, including figures of speech, by state managers for mass dissemination. In contemporary communication studies on political rhetoric, researchers often explore the processes through which state managers attempt to influence public opinion to their advantage. In order to explain the public’s attitude change on a policy issue under discussion by state managers, communication researchers frequently analyze how the issue is framed by them and how the frame then interacts with an individual’s memory to prime certain considerations and preferences.
Significantly, state managers attempt to mobilize public opinion to their advantage by framing issues in terms that prime considerations that will move public opinion in the direction they desire. By defining and overly simplifying a complex issue through framing, state managers can manipulate the set of considerations that citizens will use in formulating their preferences and attitudes regarding that issue. The set of considerations established by the frame are usually those that will move public opinion in the direction desired by the framers. At the individual level, the frame then interacts with an individual’s memory so as to prime or make some considerations more accessible than others and, therefore, more likely to be used in formulating a policy preference. By successfully framing a policy issue according to their interests, state managers participate in the social construction of reality by restricting the perspectives available for public understanding of an issue. This, in turn, primes the particular aspects of an issue in an individual’s memory that are most likely to guide opinion formation in the direction desired by political elites.
The consequences of elite framing of issues are powerful because the framing of issues by politicians, law enforcement and the media set the national agenda. Collectively, state managers and the media define social problems such as crime and terrorism, and also label the individuals or groups who are allegedly responsible for those problems. Moreover, state managers and the media establish the definitions of good and evil in society and, as a result, determine who should either be rewarded or punished. How does such power in the hands of state managers and the media to set the national agenda make you feel? I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please submit your comments below or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me @DocBonn on Twitter.
Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Drew University and a media expert. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq” and is currently writing a book about the public’s fascination with serial killers.
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Posted on April 4, 2012, in Mass Deception and tagged Doc Bonn, Dr. Scott Bonn, Managing the news, Mass Deception, Media influence, News media influence, Public Agenda. Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.