By Paige Brown
After the MTV Music Awards, stories about Miley Cyrus were all over the news, from CNN to TIME magazine. But that does not mean Cyrus was the most important issue of the day. The same is true for crime, where newsworthy crime events are covered frequently in the news, regardless of true crime rates in a given area. However, audiences who pay attention to how often the news covers Cyrus, or crime events, might erroneously think that outlets are covering these topics precisely because they have weighed them against other possible news topics and considered them more important.
In mass communication research, this is known as “agenda setting,” or the ability of news media to influence which issues audience members consider to be top priorities. For example, through frequency of news coverage, audiences may be led to believe that issues like crime and the state of MTV are more important than issues covered less often. But while scholars have been studying agenda-setting effects ever since a famous research study in 1968 formally developed the theory, a researcher at the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication recently showed for the first time that there may be differing explanations for these effects. One is associated with the audience learning why a particular issue is important from information in the content of news stories, while the other is associated with the audience mistaking the existence of news coverage of an issue as a cue that journalists think it’s more important.
“Our experiment showed that agenda setting is really at least two different kinds of effects, one of which is a healthy process of learning reasons why issues are important, while the other is effectively a miscommunication between the news and the audience,” said Ray Pingree, assistant professor in the Manship School and lead author of the new study published online in the Journal of Communication. “Specifically, it’s a miscommunication in the sense that audience members wrongly assume that an issue gets the most frequent coverage because someone has decided it is more important than other issues.”
Pingree calls this miscommunication aspect “agenda cueing,” and points out that it is very different from the healthier “agenda reasoning.” According to Pingree, all previous agenda setting experiments combined agenda cues and agenda reasons, making it impossible to tell how much of the overall effect is because of each of these explanations. In his new research study, Pingree separates the two for the first time, showing that the mere fact of a lot of media coverage of an issue can be an influential agenda cue, even when an audience member doesn’t get any reasons for the importance of issues from the content of stories.
Within their study, Pingree and Elizabeth Stoycheff, a collaborator from the Department of Communication at Wayne State University in Detroit, either simply told participants that a given topic, unemployment for example, was the most frequently covered news story of the week, or gave participants a description of the reason why the topic of the top story of the week was important. What the researchers found was that giving people reasons why the top story of the week was important wasn’t necessary to produce very strong agenda cueing effects. In other words, even participants who were merely told that unemployment, or national debt, was the most frequently covered story of the week, ended up thinking that topic was more important than other topics covered less frequently that week.
“News is called news for a reason, it’s not called ‘importance,’” Pingree said. “Audiences should keep in mind that news outlets choose to cover certain topics for many different reasons.”
For example, CNN and USA Today might choose to cover Miley Cyrus stories for several weeks in a row simply because these stories have entertainment value and attract large number of readers, in turn contributing to the economic success of the news outlet. Increasing amount of news coverage of other topics, crime for example, may also lead audience members to believe these topics are important and high on the national agenda, even if the true number of crime events that occur on a daily basis are actually on the decline across the nation. This is another example of what Pingree calls agenda cueing, the unhealthy form of agenda-setting.
Despite the finding that miscommunication may play a large role in powerful agenda-setting effects on public audiences, Pingree is hopeful that teaching people more about how and why media outlets actually chose stories to cover on a regular basis may reduce this effect. In a separate published research study, Pingree showed that providing audiences with a criticism of the media can reduce the misunderstanding part of agenda-setting.
Media literacy may be an important component of future efforts to help people understand what issues of the day are actual national priorities, based on story content and not just story frequency. For example, news outlets may not cover energy and climate change as often as crime or entertainment stories, but the stories on energy and climate change likely take a more much serious tone to portray the importance of these issues.
“This research has some clear implications that I think are really hopeful,” Pingree said. “Agenda cueing is based on a misunderstanding of why the media is choosing what to cover. Now we can study how to reduce that misunderstanding and make the cueing part of agenda-setting go away.”
To read the full research study, visit http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jcom.12051/abstract.