Setting the Agenda: The Mass Media and Public Opinion

Article excerpt

* Setting the Agenda: The Mass Media and Public Opinion. Maxwell McCombs. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2004. 184 pp. $26.95 pbk.

Since the publication of the original Chapel Hill study in 1972, there have been more than 400 published empirical investigations into the theory of agenda setting. In Setting the Agenda, Maxwell McCombs, J. H. Jones Centennial Chair at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the founders of agenda-setting research, synthesizes this rich history of research. The result is a well-organized and systematic presentation that not only integrates what we currently know about agenda setting but also identifies new areas of research for studying the role of the mass media in public opinion formation.

McCombs divides the evolution of agenda-setting theory into three stages. The first stage, the explication of five phases of the mass communication and public opinion formation process, dominates the book, just as this stage dominates much of the history of agenda-setting research. As the author notes, these five phases are not successive eras but are continuing lines of inquiry. The first phase, investigating the basic relationship between the media agenda and the public agenda, is the primary focus of the first three chapters. The first chapter outlines the basic concepts of agenda setting and summarizes a wide range of studies supporting the theory. In the next two chapters, McCombs continues to discuss studies that provide evidence that the media agenda sets the public agenda while also beginning to address some of the criticisms of agenda setting.

The second phase, the exploration of contingent conditions that enhance or constrain agenda-setting effects, is the topic of the fourth chapter. Need for orientation is the primary contingent condition discussed. The third phase, attribute agenda setting, is presented in chapters 5 and 6. In his explication of this second level of agenda setting, McCombs presents a wealth of attribute agenda-setting evidence for attributes of political leaders as well as for attributes of public issues. He also devotes considerable discussion to the link between attribute agenda setting and framing.

The fourth phase, the exploration of the origins of the media agenda, is introduced in chapter 7. The chapter discusses both first- and second-level agenda-setting effects as well as intermedia agenda setting. …