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Theories of Mass Communication: Agenda Setting

Anshu Joshi |

We all know that we live in a globalised society where knowledge, ideas and information are shared through various mediums of Mass Communication. As it connects people living in different parts of the world through its various forms, it acquires a significant place in academics as well. For any subject, understanding theories pertaining to it is very important. Why? Because while executing retrospection of whatever is happening around us in terms of a particular subject, we need to know the very basic concepts or the related ideal componentsso that we can get a base to analyse and derive our own rational conclusions. Hence, theories play a substantial role in providing a base and fuel for any analysis or thought process. In a series of articles, I would try to objectively discuss various theories of Mass Communication so that as a journalist, or a student of mass communication, you can comprehend your knowledge academically and apply the same while doing your most important work – covering an information or news.

Shawn Grimsley, in his lesson on Mass Communication, describes it in a very simple yet holistic way, “Mass communication is a process in which a person, group of people, or an organisation sends a message through a channel of communication to a large group of anonymous and heterogeneous people and organisations. You can think of a large group of anonymous and heterogeneous people as either the general public or a segment of the general public. Channels of communication include broadcast television, radio, social media, and print. The sender of the message is usually a professional communicator that often represents an organisation. Mass communication is an expensive process. Unlike interpersonal communication, feedback for mass communication is usually slow and indirect.”1

Mass Communication comprises various mediums and types. The most common and significant one is TV medium which serves three purposes: sharing a news or information, entertaining the target audiences and influencing them on a certain issue. Radio and Print mediums also do the same. Apart from these, Advertising is another type of Mass Communication, which promotes a particular product in the market through various mediums. Also, various organisations and agencies, which conduct opinion polls and various surveys to understand people’s views on a particular issue, are included in Mass Communication. With such a vast aim, scope and nature, Mass Communication is a complex realm to study both academically and practically. Although various theories of Mass Communication help in understanding this vast subject. There are various theories of Mass Communication such as Agenda Setting, Cultivation, Dependency, Hypodermic, Medium, Knowledge Gap, Media Richness, Spiral of Silence, Two Step, Priming, Framing and so on. This article discusses Agenda Setting theory, which plays critical role in understandingrole of media in setting an agenda for people and its relationship with various political parties/ideologies.

As the name itself explains, this famous theory of Mass Communication explains how media sets an agenda for its target audiences. According to the theory, media influences people in shaping their opinion on various political and socio-economic issues. It also influences people in setting their priority and changing their pre-existing perceptions in terms of a political or social reality. Needless to say, in this entire process, media does not play a fair and rational role. As every media house is associated, directly or indirectly, with a political party or ideology, it sets the agenda among people as per the agenda of its own ideology or the political party.

After observing an interesting phenomenon, that media shapes the opinion of people and sets an agenda, during their studyof election campaigns in the US in 1968, the name of the theory ‘Agenda Setting’ was devised by McCombs and Shaw. In their research, they focused on two elements: awareness and information. Examining the agenda setting function of the mass media, they attempted to evaluate the relationship between what voters in one community said were important issues and the actual content of the media messages used during the campaign. McCombs and Shaw concluded that the mass media exerted a significant influence on what voters considered to be the major issues of the campaign. 2

However, even before the term was coined for this much studied and worked theory;it was explained without any name in the first chapter of Walter Lippmann’s book, ‘Public Opinion’. In his chapter, ‘The world outside the pictures in our heads’, Lippmann argued that the mass media sets the primary connection between events in the world and the images in the minds of the public. Following Lippmann, in 1963, Bernard Cohen observed that the press “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” Cohen further stated, “depending on the map that is drawn for them by writers, editors, and publishers of the paper they read.”Thus Cohen had expressed the idea that later led to formalisation of Agenda Setting theory by McCombs and Shaw.3

On basis of what various theorists and writers have explained, we can summarise important points of Agenda Setting theory as follows:

  • Media signposts to public, what is the main issue to prioritise, mainly during elections, thus setting the agenda for elections and in general.
  • This agenda setting depends on various factors such as its related history, contemporary political and social conditions, ideology, funding and so on.
  • Media does not set the agenda rationally or based on objectivity. Instead, this agenda setting is subjective in nature.
  • Agenda setting influences people by continuously sharing the agenda with them; it psychologically impacts them and makes them believe in the agenda as a reality.
  • Although, this agenda setting does not remain permanent as people’s opinion may change over a period of time, it still plays a crucial role in framing political decisions of people in respective contemporary times.
  • It sets media as the directional body, which impacts behaviours and decision making of people thus influencing the society vividly.

However, Davis and Robinson have criticised the classical Agenda Setting theory for ignoring the possible effects on what people think concerning who is important, where important things happen and why things are important. According to Rogers and Dearing, we need to distinguish clearly between different agendas 4and hence they divide the agenda setting into the following three types:

  • Public agenda setting, in which the public’s agenda is considered as the dependent variable (the traditional hypothesis)
  • Media agenda setting, in which the media’s agenda is treated as the dependent variable (agenda building)
  • Policy agenda setting, in which elite policy makers’ agendas are treated as the dependent variable (political agenda setting)5

Indeed, there are few challenges to this theory. First of all, various new events may impact the already set agenda in a positive or negative manner. Then we cannot assume people would certainly convince to what is shared with them as an agenda. Availability of multiple sources of information also impacts agenda setting as different TV channels, radio channels, newspapers and online sources share their own agenda that may not be similar. Then, in today’s time of social media, people too have the opportunity of setting agenda through various social platforms, which can be debated and accordingly can be accepted or rejected. However, still, the role of this theory in influencing people’s decisions and priorities and establishing media as a directive medium is important. Also, a student of Mass Communication can recognise the process, purpose and elements of setting an agenda through media by understanding this theory.


  1. “What is Mass Communication: Definition and Theories”, by Shawn Grimsley, on Study.com Website, http://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-mass-communication-definition-theories-quiz.html)
  2. “Agenda Setting Theory”, University of Twente Website, https://www.utwente.nl/cw/theorieenoverzicht/Theory%20Clusters/Mass%20Media/Agenda-Setting_Theory/
  3. “Agenda Setting Theory”, The Wikipedia Website, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agenda-setting_theory
  4. “McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory”, by Denis McQuail, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2010, p. 513
  5. “Agenda Setting Theory”, The Wikipedia Website, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agenda-setting_theory

About the Author: Anshu Joshi is a doctorate from School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi and worked on issues related to terrorism, bioterrorism and role of media in creating a comprehensive BW defence mechanism. She is a political analyst and writer.


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