One of the good things about the recent controversy surrounding the flag of the Confederacy is that it brought to light some things about the media. Namely, that the media has control over the duration, quantity, and intensity in which a topic is discussed. When the media controls the outlets and channels in which consumers are informed about news and current events, they also control what the audience finds relevant. While this revelation seems to have been on the minds of many people lately, the concept is nothing new. In fact, it has a name: the Agenda Setting Theory. And as with all academic theories, it is open for much debate. The concept of agenda setting can be traced back to 1922, but it was officially given a name in 1968. Since then, the concept of agenda setting in the media is fairly accepted, and is not mutually exclusive from other concepts like framing.
But what is agenda setting? Well, I can sum it up in a few words.
The media doesn’t control what you say,
but it most certainly controls what you talk about.
Now, this is certainly not a blog about how the media is evil. Because I really don’t think it is. Journalists have to take a very similar oath of ethics very similar to doctors and lawyers. There are entire organizations devoted to the ethical standards of journalists and public relations practitioners. Some of my best friends work in the news media, including one who’s in media production and another who’s in sports broadcasting.
But there are some things that I think the average person should be more aware of when it comes to agenda setting. If you just know these things, it will be a lot easier to navigate the treacherous waters of agenda setting.
1. The media is generally controlled by another form of agenda setting: money.
This can take place in two main ways. The first and most obvious is advertising. Simply put, the media, especially the mainstream media, is more likely to portray people who pay them in a more positive light than non-related companies. It’s why video game companies are always paying sites to inflate their ratings, and it’s why product placement occurs so much on news sets. But sponsorship isn’t exclusive to the media, in fact it takes place in almost all professions.
The second way money affects agenda setting is by, no pun intended, viewers like you. Certain topics are likely to be relevant to the widest audience possible. The widest audience possible means more eyeballs on the TV screen (or web page, etc). More eyeballs means more sales for the advertisers. So of course the media is going to set the agenda to make the most money. Because money is cool.
2. The cultural relationship between the audience and the media is cyclical in nature. We think.
Have you noticed how the media seems to be getting more liberal? Well, it wasn’t always like that. The overall attitudes of the media seem to correlate with society. As society gets more conservative, so does the media. Then the pendulum swings and the media gets more liberal again. Some people perceive this as one or two people driving the media to be more and more liberal, but I tend to think differently.
I think a chicken-or-the-egg paradox is occurring. Is it the media that gets more liberal, which causes society to get more liberal. Or is it society that gets more conservative, which causes the media to get more conservative? I don’t know, but as with all chicken-or-the-egg scenarios, does it really matter which came first? Either way, society controls the media and the media controls society, probably at the same time.
3. In this age, you control the media.
This is maybe a little risky, but I want you to ask yourself something. What is the media, in essence? It’s people, right? And, well, I’m pretty sure you’re a people. Unless you’re a robot, which is possible considering how much spam my Askimet picks up on a daily basis.
Now I’m not saying you personally have control over what’s going to be on the 10:00 news, but if you’re reading this you either have a computer or a smartphone, probably both. You have everything you need to create your own media. This means you’re perfectly capable of starting a blog or putting a channel on YouTube or starting a live feed on Twitter. You can saturate the market, build an audience, and become a journalist without ever having to get hired by a company. And people do it all the time. Just know that instead of complaining about agenda setting, you could be out there setting your own agenda.
So to sum up the concept of agenda setting, let’s talk about something cool, like wind chimes. The media cannot directly control you into buying wind chimes. But they can talk about wind chimes so much that everyone starts to think about wind chimes. Then, everybody starts buying wind chimes, putting them on their car, buying wind chime shirts at Hot Topic, and remixing wind chimes with cat videos on YouTube. This causes you to think wind chimes are cool (wind chimes really are cool), and so you go and buy some wind chimes. The big wind chime companies prosper, paying for advertisements on mainstream media and a great big wind chime empire is formed. And THAT, friends, is how agenda setting works. And, to think, it probably all started because one journalist walked out on her porch one day to enjoy the sound of his or her wind chimes.
[Photo credit: Luis Llerena, Unsplash]