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Media & Society I. Agenda Setting Theory and News Production Research. News is created and packaged in a variety of ways and by a variety of people. (Traditional journalists, bloggers, etc ).

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media society i

Media & Society I

Agenda Setting Theory


News Production Research


News is created and packaged in a variety of ways and by a variety of people. (Traditional journalists, bloggers, etc).

  • The way we receive and use info is being transformed- this creates a difficult situation for traditional news providers.
  • Online newspaper audiences are at record highs BUT a print reader is worth around 20 times more than an online reader.

The way we use information plays a role in our identity, our culture, our society.

  • These theories look at information and the role it plays for us.
we report you decide
“We Report, You Decide”
  • How can news shape the social world?
  • Does news report or influence? Or both?
  • Journalists tell us they provide objective news coverage.
  • Does news media reflect social world accurately?
  • Are news media doing everything they can to provide us with useful services or are they a part of the problem?
agenda setting theory
Agenda Setting Theory
  • Media don’t tell people what to think, but what to think about.
  • Media affect the importance we assign to various issues.
  • Examples? (Papa New Guinea)
  • Is this true? What about in the changing digital news landscape?

Two basic assumptions underlie most research on agenda-setting:

  • the press and the media do not reflect reality, they filter and shape it
  • media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues

Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw introduced agenda-setting theory

  • Based on study where the researchers surveyed 100 undecided voters during the 1968 presidential campaign on what they thought were key issues and measured that against the actual media content.
  • The ranking of issues was almost identical.
  • The mass media positioned the agenda for public opinion by emphasizing specific topics

Yale three groups of subjects fill out questionnaires about their concerns.

  • Then each group watched different evening news programs.
  • Watched news for four days, the subjects again filled out questionnaires .
  • The issues they rated as most important matched issues viewed on the evening news
  • Demonstrates a cause-and-effect relationship between media agenda and public agenda. 

“In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality. Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position. In reflecting what candidates are saying during a campaign, the mass media may well determine the important issues—that is, the media may set the “agenda” of the campaign.”


What were important issues and images of the presidential campaign?

  • Of all the issues that could be examined, only a few became dominant.
  • Only a few were viewed as the most important issues facing the US. This is agenda setting.
  • Time and space are limited in traditional news. Digital space is unlimited, but audience time/attendance is limited.
primary character narratives
Primary Character Narratives


Foreign-Born, Muslim, narratives that convey “otherness”

Obama doesn’t believe in capitalism or notions of individual success/American exceptionalism

Obama has ruined/couldn’t save the economy.

(according to Pew Research on the campaign)


So, the news doesn’t necessarily say Obama was born outside America- but by raising the issue, by giving it air time- they implicitly give it legitimacy and make it part of the conversation.

By giving equal time to both sides, they imply both sides are equally valid. This is partially because of objectivity rituals.

primary character narratives1
Primary Character Narratives
  • Romney:

Doubts about his career at Bain Capital

Wealthy elitist, Not good with people, flip-flopper, lacks charisma/makes gaffes, unfeeling capitalist

(according to Pew Research on the Campaign)


So- Agenda Setting- not what to think but what to think about.

Okay….so what is the impact of this?

What gets left out?


Sandy pushes all other stories off agenda?

Briggert Waters Act on flood protection strongly impacts NYC, but almost no one even knew it existed or was passed.

Meanwhile….what DID New Yorkers know?

Why are certain stories told? How does the format of news impact what stories are told?

Within the Sandy narrative, what stories are not told?

-news cycle, program format, narrative templates

boston marathon
Boston Marathon
  • Terror attack pushes all other stories off the agenda.
  • Within the narratives of the marathon, what issues are not addressed, not considered?

Can you think of an example?

  • Not what to think, but what to think about…
  • What gets left out?
agenda building
Agenda Building
  • Elite strategies for building and promoting policy agendas
    • Stage media events; public announcements
    • Capitalize on real events
    • Mount public campaigns
    • Lobby news organizations
    • Sponsor special interest groups
why do things get left out
WHY do things get left out?

(Many reasons)

Pack journalism

Narrative structure


Reporting limitations

Restrictions of the medium (Florida icicles)

Use of wire service

related concepts
Related Concepts
  • Priming – Effects of particular, prior context on retrieval and interpretation of information. Media coverage of certain issues makes them more accessible and vivid in the public’s mind.
  • Framing–Framing defines how a certain piece of media content is packaged so it will influence particular interpretations. This is accomplished through the use of selection, emphasis, exclusion, and elaboration.

Indecision 2012 - Corn Polled Edition - Ron Paul & the Top Tier


Originally proposed by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1974.

  • Spiral of silence refers to the tendencey of people to remain silent when they feel their views are in opposition to the majority view on a subject. 
why do people remain silent
Why do people remain silent?
  • Fear of isolation when the group realizes the individual has a different opinion from the status quo.
  • Fear of reprisal or more extreme isolation, in the sense that voicing an opinion might lead to severe negative consequence such loss of a job, etc.

This theory relies on the idea that we all have a sort of intuitive way of knowing what the prevailing opinion is.

  • The spiral is reinforced when someone in the majority speaks out confidently in support of the majority opinion.
  • Now, the minority gets more uncomfortablewith voicing their opinion

Fears build within the minority opinion holder, and the minority opinion is never voiced.

  • The mass media has a effect on this process. The media plays an important role in this process, by often parroting the majority opinion.

The closer an individual feels their opinion resides to the held majority opinion the more likely they are to be willing to voice it in public discourse.

  • The opinion must have a distinct moral component (i.e. abortion, legalization of marijuana, etc ).
  • The internet- levels the playing field and makes it easier to voice a minority opinion.
  • The vocal minority – Extremely vocal, do not care about majority opinion. These people are seemingly outside of the effects of the Spiral of Silence.
spiral of silence theory
Spiral of Silence Theory
  • Media constantly assess and report the levels of support for various opinions
  • Most people fear loss of social approval if they try to defend opinions that are losing support
spiral of silence theory1
Spiral of Silence Theory
  • News media increasingly present a small number of opinions as dominant
    • News media repeat the same news across many outlets owned by the same companies
    • Journalists share common values and news reflects these values
    • Journalists rely on other journalists for recognition and acceptance
spiral of science findings
Spiral of Science Findings
  • Neumann compiled extensive findings to support her theory (in Germany)
  • Findings in other parts of the world are mixed. Factors affecting findings include:
    • Cultural differences
    • Strength with which opinions are held -- Partisans are more likely to talk about their opinions if they think they are losing ground
    • Framing of news coverage to focus on winners and losers
    • Perceived importance of the opinions
discussion of spiral of silence theory
Discussion of Spiral of Silence Theory
  • Are you reluctant to express your views about politicians or issues if news coverage indicates that your views are unpopular?
  • Are you less likely to talk about politicians or issues if your views are different from your friends or family?
  • If someone else expresses a strong opinion that you oppose, how likely are you to object and argue for your views?
  • Do you think news coverage can affect how people talk about politicians?
news production theory research
News Production Theory/Research
  • W. Lance Bennett summarizes four ways news production practices distort or bias news content
  • They are:

Personalization, Dramatization, Fragmentation and Normalization

  • Basically, by fitting stories into these boxes, the stories themselves are altered and sometimes misrepresented.
  • Tendency to downplay big social/economic/political picture in favor of human trials, tragedy, triumph.
  • Journalists worry explaining deeper cause and effect will lose audiences.
  • Focus on personalities instead of deeper cause and effect.
  • Focus on heroes and victims, scounderels and culprits creates a can’t see the forest for the trees informationbias that obscures the big picture in favor of many actors on the stage.
  • Personal concerns are seldom linked to in-depth analysis.
  • The aspects of events that are reported tend to be the ones most easily dramatized into simple stories.
  • Reporting stories of narrative as opposed to analytics.
  • News downplays complex policy info for drama.
  • Focusing on drama/conflict/scandal win out over sustained analysis.
  • Chronic stories are ignored until they reach a tipping point.
  • But a crisis- not the slow build up to crisis- are perfect news because they fit into dramatization bias.
  • Crisis cycle- action and resolution- are favored over a look at underlying problems.
  • Medium plays a role- stories selected because they offer dramtic images.
  • Isolating stories from their larger contexts so that information in the news becomes fragmented and hard to assemble into a big picture.
  • The fragmentation of information begins by emphasizing individual actors over the contexts in which they operate.
  • The fragmentation of information is exaggerated by the severe space limits nearly all media impose for fear of boring readers and viewers with too much information.
  • Fragmented news makes it difficult to see causes of problems and historical significance.
  • (Does aggregation alleviate this?)
normalization or authority disorder bias
Normalization (or Authority-Disorder Bias)
  • Officials take center stage as opposed to what is the problem and why is it a problem or what are better explanations than the official ones?
  • Focus on authority and order plays into the desire for dramatized, personalized stories.
  • News looks at why President Bush did what he did after Hurricane Katrina rather than putting forth solutions and ideas for people to help.
  • Partially- putting forward solutions is problematic because it impacts objectivity.
ideal objectives for news
Ideal Objectives for News
  • Objective, complete report of all significant events at local, regional, national and international levels
  • Useful and efficient means of keeping informed in order to participate in politics
  • Useful and unbiased representation of the social world that can guide everyday action
what news is
What News IS
  • Product of a bureaucratized industry that must earn a profit in a competitive marketplace
  • A commodity that is quickly produced using well established routines that result in a standardized, highly predictable product
  • Widely relied upon by audiences for much of what they know and believe about the larger social world
theories about news production
Theories about News Production
  • Gatekeeper -- David White
  • Social Control in the News Room -- Warren Breed
    • Only a small amount of the available news is distributed to audiences
    • A small number of editors control what is distributed
    • Editors assign reporters they trust to cover stories in ways they think are useful or important
    • Distribution decisions are determined by

*News values = currency, prominence, unusual, etc.

*Social background of the editors

Conclusion: News tends to reflect the world view of editors

theories about news production1
Theories about News Production
  • News From Nowhere -- Edward Jay Epstein
    • TV network news coverage tends to decontextualize the news
    • Events are covered with little reference to their context
      • Geographic place
      • Past events (history)
      • Social context (groups affected and how)
      • Cultural context (meaning of events with cultural differences)
    • Powerful pictures are intentionally used to symbolize (give meaning to events)
    • Decontextualizationresults in news that is hard to interpret
    • When news is difficult to interpret, it is easily misinterpreted or forgotten
theories about news production2
Theories about News Production
  • Strategic Rituals/Making News -- Gaye Tuchman
  • News is constructed by journalists using strategic rituals
    • Rituals are intended to produce objective, definitive coverage
      • 2 or more sources used = balanced story
      • All routine locations are scouted for news
      • Official sources are balanced by unofficial sources
    • Sources are chosen who tell journalists what they expect or want to hear
    • Official sources tend to dominate coverage = provide the major quotes that are not effectively challenged by other sources
    • News often happens at places that journalists don’t routinely cover
    • Stories routinely omit details that are inconsistent with the stock narratives
    • Stories routinely exaggerate details that are consistent with stock narratives
theories about news production3
Theories about News Production
  • Manufacturing News - Mark Fishman
  • When major news events don’t occur, journalists create them to fill the gap
  • There are many types of events that normally are ignored or given just routine attention by journalists (crime, mental health, illness, group actions)
  • But when gaps in news coverage occur, routine events can be used to manufacture major events
    • Crime waves
    • Disease threats
    • Suicide, kidnapping, school violence contagion
    • Threatening social movements
    • Shark attacks

Can you think of examples of this?

theories about news production4
Theories about News Production
  • Whole World is Watching -- Todd Gitlin
    • News about social movements is distorted to fit journalist’s limited narratives
      • Personalization = focus on movement leaders chosen by journalists = focus on strange, unusual people
      • Negative frames used for stories = threatening actions, heroic opposition, childish behavior
      • Coverage focuses on actions not on ideas
discussion of news production
Discussion of News Production
  • To what extent do you think news can provide objective, useful reports of the social world?
  • Are there particular news organizations that you think provide better reports?
  • Do you make an effort to assess the objectivity and usefulness of news?