Dr. Drissia CHOUIT
Moulay Ismail University
The Agenda-Setting Theory of the Press
Chouit Drissia: "Promoting Media and Information Literacy in Universities
through Theory and Research". Paper presented at the International Seminar on Media and Information Literacy at the University Level, 19-20 June, 2012, Faculty of Arts and Humanities Fes-Sais, Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University, Fez, Morocco.
News literacy is a key component of media literacy. Understanding how media professionals decide what
to be part of the news agenda and what to be discarded is very important knowledge for students to become discerning citizens, fully involved in the life of their society. This unit is devoted to the Agenda-Setting Theory of the Press and News Values.
I. The Agenda-Setting Theory of the Press
The Agenda-Setting Theory of the Press contends that in its every day surveillance of events, the press selects what to be included in news reports and what to be discarded, based on news values. What is considered
by media professionals as news worthy finds its way to the news agenda and is given space, time and prominence according to the importance they assign to it; and what they do not consider worthy of coverage is not included in the list of items to be covered.
Thus, professional communicators set the news agenda (1) by selecting items to be part of the news; and (2) by deciding their order of importance.
The main implications of the News Agenda-Setting are as follows:
- Media professionals/gatekeepers
control our access to information by allowing us to know only what they consider as important for us to know. This might have serious implications, especially when the public interest and the watchdog function of the press are downplayed by market
and/or political considerations.
- They prioritize events, people, and ideas for us, by assigning more importance to some over others in terms of the prominence given to their coverage. The serious implication
of this subtle process is that people tend to perceive as important the issues presented by news media as important.
- They do not decide only on what to cover but also on how to cover it. This
framing function allows them to spotlight some angles of stories, some views, some approaches, some witnesses, etc. to the detriment of others, which deprives audiences from having a comprehensive appreciation of events/situations and policies and making sound
judgements. Furthermore, by raising public awareness about the importance of some issues, they put these issues on the public agenda, which, in turn, impacts public opinion and decision-making. Heath and Bryan (1992:281) explain how news media impacts the
public: "the media 'cue' the public as to which news items are deemed most important. Such cues include the frequency with which the item is repeated, the prominence with which items are displayed (front page or lead story), the length or time allotted for
the item, and the framing (in what context and on what occasion the media give attention to an item)."
The theorists of the Agenda-Setting Theory of the Press, Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, have a famous statement which says that the "mass media may not be successful in telling us what to think, but they are stunningly successful
in telling us what to think about". It is true that the media tell us "what to think about" by providing news to us. But it is also true that the media tell us "what to think" for the following reasons:
- Media content is prepared by professional communicators with specific aims and effects intended to influence audiences on how they make sense of the world and interpret
events and policies. In this way, the media frame their references and shape their attitudes and behaviours. This is of particular relevance to the political agenda because audiences depend largely on mass media for understanding and taking action on political
issues. It is also to be highlighted that people turn to the media not only to know about what is happening, but also to "understand" what is happening. This is why they look for interpretations and explanations of events, as well as background information
and possible consequences.
- News media do not present reality, but they present different constructions and interpretations of reality. Therefore, when media professionals set the news agenda, they allow
us access to information about the world through their lenses and how they perceive reality.
- The untold part of the story or unreported stories may be more important than the reported ones. This refers
to Agenda-Cuttings: news that is very important, but never finds its way to the press for various reasons.
i. In such cases, those who control or exert
power on media deprive citizens from their right of
free access to information.
ii. They favour their own interests at the
expense of public interest, and deprive citizens from
making informed decisions for the smooth running of
their daily lives both at the personal and social
iii. They even don't want people to "think" at all
about the life of their society when they decide to
cut hard news: "what to think about"! This is why
should diversify their sources of information
to complement the information gaps and to
involved in the life of their society, and in order not
to be limited to a single perspective for perceiving
and interpreting the world.
While identifying how "news can be manipulated," Larson (2001:309) maintains that "one way gatekeepers distort the news is by simply ignoring it." Other ways include "favouring the sponsor," placing "pseudo-events" on the news agenda,
or presenting "biased news" (309-310). He explains that "news can be biased by simply taking things out of context or by misquoting a source." (310)
II. News Values
The criteria that impact on the selection
of the news agenda should also be taken into consideration. These are called 'news values', and they include the following decisive factors: timeliness, relevance, impact, proximity, clarity, controversy, prominence, currency, oddity, negativity, entertainment
(infotainment), and news organizations' own agendas (Reading 4.1.). To demystify these factors used on a daily basis to inform news agenda, we should underline that there is nothing
rational nor objective about this set of criteria. They are used by news professionals to frame stories in appealing ways to their audiences with the intention to persuade them. Jarman and McClune (2007:22) rightly stated that news values are "neither
natural nor neutral":
[N]ews values are, in fact, professionally and socially/culturally
and framed. They are constructions. Furthermore, as Anderson (1997)
indicates, they operate at every level within the news production process,
not simply at the point of selection of an event but also in the shaping of
the text through which that event will
values are, essentially, constructions, the news stories flowing
from the operation of these news values are also
media do not simply mirror reality. Chandler (1994) surprises us, perhaps,
when he asserts ‘news programmes … appear to be the most real and
least mediated programmes on TV’ yet they are ‘as much of a
construction as drama’. Nonetheless it is the case that all news
journalism, whether television
or tabloid, the New Statesman or the New
Scientist, involves the process of, quite literally,
Allan (2004:58) goes further in the explanation of the
craft of making news by setting the link between news values, framing of news stories, and ideology:
News accounts, then, may be deconstructed in ideological terms so as to
elucidate how these news values help to rule in certain types of events as
‘newsworthy’ while, at the
same time, ruling out alternative types. At
the heart of these processes of inclusion and exclusion are certain
‘principles of organization’ or ‘frames’ (Goffman 1974) which work to
impose order on the multiple happenings of the social world so as to
render them into a series of meaningful events. Precisely how a particular
news event is ‘framed’ by the journalist claiming to be providing an
‘objective’ or ‘balanced’
account thus takes on a distinct ideological
significance. Gitlin (1980) extends this ethno-methodological notion of
‘frame’ to argue for a consideration of how the daily routines of journalism
strive to naturalize the social world in accordance with certain discursive
conventions. News frames, he argues, make the world beyond direct
experience look natural; they are ‘principles of selection,
presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what
happens, and what matters’ (Gitlin1980: 6).
Knowing that news undergoes such a thorough process of construction will certainly help our students to be alert to news content and format and to better appreciate the fascinating but at the same time challenging
world of mass communication.
This theoretical overview gives us an idea about the importance of media and communication research in sharpening the analytical and critical skills and attitudes of students and introducing them to the craft
of mass communication and information. This would enable them to use media and information to their own advantage, and to shift control from media and other information providers to themselves, by being better in-command of their own lives and decisions.
Article in the Columbia Journalism Review on News Literacy:
"News Literacy Goes Global"