Explaining Media and Congressional Attention to Global Climate Change, 1969-2005: An Empirical Test of Agenda-Setting Theory

Article excerpt


Agenda theories suggest that problem indicator, focusing event, and information feedback enhance issue attention. However, few studies have systematically tested this. This study, using time series data and vector autoregression (VAR), examines how climate problem indicator, high-profile international event, and climate science feedback influence media and congressional attention to global warming and climate change. The findings confirm that these attention-grabbing factors indeed generally promote issue salience, but these factors may work differently across agenda venues. Attention inertia, interagenda interaction, and partisan advantage on agenda setting are also included and analyzed in the VAR modeling. Implications of the study and recommendations for future research are discussed in conclusion.


news media, congress, issue attention, agenda setting, global warming, climate change

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1. Introduction

The question of why and how some issues are placed on the agenda has long been of interest to political scientists and other social science scholars. At any given time, policy makers are confronted with many complex public issues. For a public issue to be seriously considered and handled in the policy-making process, a necessary condition is that the issue must capture the attention of policy elites (Cohen 1963; Cobb and Elder 1983; Baumgartner and Jones 1993; Jones 1994; Rochefort and Cobb 1994; Kingdon 1995; Jones and Baumgartner 2005).

One important question for agenda-setting scholars is what factors may contribute to higher levels of attention paid to a public issue. In Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (1995, 90-103), Kingdon argues that "problem indicators," "focusing events," and "feedback" can facilitate bringing a public issue to decision makers' attention and help that issue achieve higher status on the agenda. In a series of important works on agenda setting,1 Jones and Baumgartner argue, like Kingdon, that relevant information surrounding an issue (including problem indicators and information feedback) is important to decision makers' attention, but so too is the significant event that provides sudden information shock to the policy system (Jones and Baumgartner 2005; Jones 1994, 2001; Baumgartner and Jones 1993). Kingdon and Jones and Baumgartner may differ in the terms they use to describe what factors may promote issue attention, but they all agree that the dynamics of incoming information sources and flows, reflected in changing problem indicators, occurrence of focusing events, and information feedback are essential for understanding how issues move from obscurity to visibility on policy agendas.

In this study, we draw upon the common theoretical elements in agenda theories and apply them to the issue of global climate change. We are particularly interested in examining whether and how problem indicators, focusing events, and scientific feedback induced the U.S. news media and Congress to be attentive to global climate change during the period from 1969 through 2005. First, we briefly review existing research on what factors contribute to capturing the attention of policy elites. Second, we develop our hypotheses and describe how we measure the dependent and independent variables as well as how we collect our data. Third, we employ the vector autoregressive (VAR) method for hypothesis testing and present the results of analysis. Finally, we summarize our main findings, discuss some implications of our study, and make a few recommendations for future research. These empirical tests of attention-driving forces of agenda theory are among the first to systematically examine and test the key underlying relational elements of the theory.

2. Attention-Grabbing Factors in Agenda Setting

Many scholars have examined various factors that contribute to a higher level of attention to a particular issue. …