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Agenda Setting

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  1. Agenda Setting PA 598D February 19, 2008

  2. Agenda setting is • The process by which problems and alternative solutions gain or lose public and elite attention. • A fierce competition because government and society cannot consider every issue at once--our carrying capacity for dealing with every issue is too small

  3. Why is agenda setting so important? • “E. E. Schattschneider summed up the importance of this ‘agenda-setting’ role of the media when in 1960 he wrote, ‘The definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power.”(found at, quoting The Semisovereign People) • Control over the agenda means control over outcomes • Agenda setting is therefore about getting on the agenda, and about keeping things from it.

  4. Levels of the agenda • Universe • Any idea out there • Some are “out of bounds” politically • Systemic: Ideas that are taken up by the system

  5. Levels of the agenda • Institutional • Multiple institutional agendas • Overlap, but are not congruent • Evidence: bills, calendars, agendas, etc. • Decision: Where a choice is made

  6. Levels of the agenda

  7. How do issues reach the agenda? Cobb and Elder

  8. The creation of issues • Manufacturing of issues: readjustors • Manufacturing of issues for their own gain: exploiters • Unanticipated events: “circumstantial reactors” (what we generally now call “focusing events” • “Do-gooders”

  9. Triggering Devices • Internal • Natural catastrophe • Unanticipated human event • Technological change • Actual bias in resource distribution • Ecological Change

  10. Triggering Devices • External • War: U.S. as direct combatant • Innovations in weapons technology • Indirect role in international conflict

  11. Issue initiation and triggers • “The dynamic interplay between the initiator and the trigger device” • “A link must be made between a grievance (or a triggering event) and an initiator who converts the problem into an issue” • Note that not all triggers work the same way, as I note in my article

  12. John Kingdon and the Streams Metaphor

  13. Kingdon’s Streams Metaphor Screen clipping taken: 4/2/2005, 1:26 PM Focusing events reveal problems

  14. Other ways of thinking about how issues reach the agenda • Group reactions to other groups’ actions/success • Leadership activity • Crises and Focusing Events • Protest movements • Media coverage or activity • Changes in indicators • Political changes

  15. The relationship between the policy agenda and the media agenda • Media coverage can lead to increased public concern • But, Kingdon found that the media didn’t drive the agenda in some fields • But, the media has considerable power to set the agenda after focusing events

  16. The special role of focusing events • “a rare, sudden, well-known, actually or potentially harmful event.” • Tend to induce sudden attention to issues • Can trigger intensive group interest and activity • Focusing events can fade fast on the agenda.

  17. Agenda setting and problem framing • The agenda space is limited in two ways • The number of items on the agenda • The number of ways to define the problems on the agenda • Agenda competition is therefore about • The items themselves • The issues being discussed • Case Study: Why do kids do violence in schools?

  18. Problem framing • Why do kids end up doing violent acts in schools? What are your candidate explanations?

  19. Some data: Lawrence and Birkland 2004 • See handout

  20. Groups and Power • We all know that some groups have more power than others • What is power? • Why do some groups have more power than others? • How does this relate to agenda setting?

  21. The Importance of Power • Politics—who gets what • Power—the ability to get what you want and to prevent others from getting power

  22. Three levels of power • An actor (“A”) makes actor B do something he or she doesn’t want to do • A keeps B from doing the things he or she wants to do. • These are what we call the two faces of power. What about the third face of power?

  23. The Third Face of Power • A creates and maintains a social structure in which B cannot even imagine taking action to pursue his or her own interests. • This sounds like a conspiracy (or Marxist “false consciousness” but is more subtle than this. • This is a good way to describe power relations in the United States.

  24. Differences in group power • Money • Information • Size of membership • Reasons for membership • Direct economic incentives • Material inducements • Congruence of goals with prevailing ideas and values

  25. Conclusion The Agenda and Power  • What sort of groups or people have the power to influence the agenda? • Why is agenda setting important in gaining and holding power?