Agenda Setting: Definition, Function, Process & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Agenda Setting?
  • 1:19 Technology & Agenda Setting
  • 2:35 Examples
  • 3:06 The Effects on Audiences
  • 3:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Anne Marie Orr

Anne Marie is an experienced educator of 15+ years, has a Master's degree in Education and was designated a Master Teacher for State of Ohio.

In this lesson, we will explore agenda setting and discover how the media shapes and influences issues of importance. Agenda setting will be defined, its functions and processes will be presented, and examples of agenda setting will be provided.

What Is Agenda Setting?

What issues are important to you? Why are these issues of importance? Media coverage not only directs what we think but also shapes how we think. This influence provides media with a powerful tool to influence government and the way people view it.

Agenda setting is the idea that what the public thinks about is set by the media. The agenda setting theory was first introduced by Dr. Maxwell McCombs and Dr. Donald Shaw in 1972. This theory states that the news plays an integral part in the shaping of political realities. The amount of time spent on an issue and the information relayed in a news story, along with the story's position, determines how much a reader learns and the amount of importance placed on the issue. The agenda setting theory of McCombs and Shaw states that when the media reflect on the views of a candidate during a campaign, they are also shaping and determining the issues of importance. This can ultimately set the agenda for a political campaign.

When analyzing agenda setting, there are two basic assumptions to be considered:

  1. Media and the press filter and shape reality rather than reflect it.
  2. When media focuses on just a few issues and subjects, the public tends to perceive those issues as more important.

Technology and Agenda Setting

Advances in technology provide many new avenues for influencing the masses. At the onset of the agenda setting theory, communication was conducted primarily via print and radio, followed by film and television. Today, communication sources are nearly unlimited, allowing for greater public engagement and setting the trend for increased attention on agenda setting.

To demonstrate the effect of technology on agenda setting, let's explore the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Occupy Wall Street movement consisted of a diverse group of gender, color, and political viewpoints that opposed social and economic inequity. The movement emerged in July of 2011 with presence via a website, Facebook, and Twitter. The goal was to gather a group of 20,000 on September 17, 2011, on Wall Street in New York City's financial district. The movement was left largely uncovered by mainstream media until late September of 2011, when YouTube footage of an activist being pepper sprayed by a New York police officer was aired. Following this social media coverage, the movement began to gain a significant presence across the country. By utilizing social media, activists have an effective platform for setting agenda in society.


In 1972, The Washington Post set the national agenda by reporting on the details of the Democratic National Headquarters break-in; this set off an influx of public interest and focus on Richard Nixon and Watergate. Likewise, in 1997, an online report by the Drudge Report brought major public attention to the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton sex scandal. While coverage may not directly cause change, it does serve as a catalyst for determining positions and attitudes.

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