The Agenda-Setting Theory in Mass Communication

When major news happens, the world’s mass media organizations take notice.

Whether it’s the President of the United States making an announcement or a severe storm battering a region, when it’s a story that affects people, the news media is on alert to cover it, providing viewers with the facts and information they need to understand what is happening.

But sometimes it may seem, with so much media focus and scrutiny on a single event, that the mass media is missing or even ignoring other important stories. This is the crux of the agenda-setting theory.

This theory refers to how the media’s news coverage determines which issues become the focus of public attention.

First introduced in 1972 by college professors, Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, they found in surveying North Carolina voters during the 1968 U.S. presidential election that what people thought were the most important issues were what the mass media reported as the most critical.

Thus, agenda-setting theory was born, built on the notion that the mass media sets the agenda for what people should care about.

Core Assumptions

The agenda-setting theory rests on two basic assumptions.

The first is that the media filters and shapes what we see rather than just reflecting stories to the audience. An example of this is seeing a sensational or scandalous story at the top of a broadcast as opposed to a story that happened more recently or one that affects more people, such as an approaching storm or legislative tax reform.

The second assumption is that the more attention the media gives to an issue, the more likely the public will consider that issue to be important. Another way to look at it: Mass media organizations aren’t telling us what to think or how we should feel about a story or issue, but are giving us certain stories or issues that people should think more about.

There is psychological and scientific merit to the agenda-setting theory. The more a story is publicized in the mass media, the more it becomes prominently stored in individuals’ memories when they’re asked to recall it, even if it doesn’t specifically affect them or register as a prominent issue in their minds.

Types of Agenda Setting

There are three types of agenda setting:

  • Public agenda setting: when the public determines the agenda for which stories are considered important
  • Media agenda setting: when the media determines the agenda for which stories are considered important
  • Policy agenda setting: when both the public and media agendas influence the decisions of public policy makers


One of the issues with the agenda-setting theory is that it is difficult to measure.

Research on the theory has been largely inconclusive in establishing a causal relationship between public prominence and media coverage. And in 2018, with the worldwide influence of the internet and social media, where almost everyone can find news they’re looking for instead of being constrained by just relying on one or two sources, it’s harder to convince others that the mass media is setting the agenda.

In addition, the theory doesn’t work for people who have already made up their minds. For example, someone might believe that his or her elected official was the right choice for office, despite numerous compelling reports to the contrary presented by the mass media.

Learn More About the Media-Public Relationship

In recent years, the mass media’s relationship with the public has evolved, with social media being used as a way to both inform and spread news. Learn more about how the public interacts with mass media with Alvernia University’s fully online B.A. in Communication. You’ll learn about media theory, mass communication law, ethics and more in one of two tracks: strategic communications or public relations and advertising. Take advantage of small classes taught by professors with real-world experience and who have your success in mind. Our flexible online schedule allows you to balance your studies with your busy life.

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