Joan Schleuder Maxwell McCombs Wayne Wanta Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
Describing the agenda-setting function of the media has been the focus of one of the most enduring lines of research in the mass communication field. Walter Lippmann ( 1920, 1922, 1925) described the media's ability to determine what the public considers to be important, and Bernard Cohen ( 1963) is often remembered for telling us that the media are not very successful in telling us what to think, but stunningly successful in telling us what to think about. Empirical work on agenda setting has a much briefer history. McCombs and Shaw ( 1972) tested the agenda- setting effect during the 1968 presidential campaign using surveys and content analysis. Since this time many facets of agenda setting have been explored empirically including the time lag involved ( Stone & McCombs, 1981; Winter & Eyal, 1981) and issue versus image agenda setting in presidential campaigns ( Weaver, Graber, McCombs, & Eyal, 1981). Recently, Iyengar, Peters, and Kinder ( 1982) and Iyengar and Kinder ( 1987) provided experimental (cause-effect) evidence for the agenda-setting function of television news.
Understanding the agenda-setting function is important because very few people who vote for president of the United States will have personal contact of any kind with any of the candidates, nor will they have much direct, personal interaction with major campaign issues. Instead of traveling to Nicaragua, analyzing U.S. trade agreements with other nations or delving into any political issue in depth, voters tend to rely on the media to present information that they can use on Election