Nowadays it is possible to find a few people who do not think that mass media affect, to some extent, public opinion. Admittedly, people find out about numerous events and phenomena from mass media. This assumption can be regarded as a basis for the agenda-setting theory. The theory’s major point is that mass media decide what is the most important news and what event (or person) “deserves” less attention.
It is necessary to point out that the basic points of the agenda-setting theory are plausible, and the strength of the theory lies in the fact that media do shape public opinion to certain extent, but the weakness of the theory is that mass media’s impact is somewhat over-estimated.
McCombs and Shaw claim that people “learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information”, in this way media are setting the “agenda” (1972, 176). Admittedly, this basic assumption of their theory is plausible since mass media do “sorts” news and adhere different levels of importance to each event and person.
Thus, many people follow the set “agenda” and pay more attention to most important and less attention to least important. Besides, this principle works in the same way when it deals with political campaigns.
One of the greatest strengths of the agenda-setting theory is that it presents “a vast wealth of research on the impact of mass media content on the public agenda” (McCombs and Ghanem 2003, 68). The theory reveals the major processes which influence public opinion. It is especially relevant when considering political campaigns since at present the “information in the mass media becomes the only contact many have with politics” (McCombs and Shaw 1972, 176).
Thus, politicians’ pledges are perceived through the vision of mass media. Apparently, when mass media highlight the campaign of a politician and there is nothing said about others, people can forget about the existence of “others”.
However, apart from the strengths the agenda-setting theory has quite a significant weakness. Crespi states that the theory “does not accept the discredited image of all-powerful mass media”, but “does ascribe a major role to them [mass media] in the public opinion process” (1997, 40). Nevertheless, even the major role of mass media is quite a disputable issue.
McCombs and Ghanem claim that the plausibility of the agenda-setting theory is supported by the fact that voters do not have “alternative means of observing the day-to-day changes in the political arena” (2003, 185). However, it is not taken into account that voters are usually exposed to different types of mass media.
Admittedly, various newspapers and magazines set different agendas. Some people prefer reading this or that newspaper or magazine because it highlights campaigns and activities of a certain politician. In this case, the voter sets his own agenda by choosing this or that source of information.
These cases are not rare; on the contrary they are rather common. Thus, this is the most evident weakness of the theory which assumes that mass media play the primary role.
In conclusion, it is possible to point out that the agenda-setting theory is very important in terms of the study of mass media impact on public opinion. The major strength of the study is that it reveals certain processes which define the impact of mass media. However, the major weakness of the theory is that it regards mass media as primary source of public agenda shaping.
Crespi, Irving. The Public Opinion Process: How the People Speak. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1997.
McCombs, Maxwell and Salma I. Ghanem. “The Convergence of Agenda Setting and Framing.” In Framing Public Life: Perspectives on Media and Our Understanding of the Social World, edited by Oscar H. Gandy, August E. Grant, Stephen D. Reese, 67-83. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2003.
McCombs, Maxwell E. and Donald L. Shaw “The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media.” Public Opinion Quarterly 36, no. 2 (1972): 176-187.