Agenda building refers to the process by which news organizations and journalists feature, emphasize, and/or select certain events, issues, or sources to cover over others. Research in the area is closely linked to but distinct from the agenda-setting tradition which examines the connection between the issues portrayed in the news media and the issue priorities of the public (McCombs 2004). Agenda building is also related to work in political science on policy agenda setting, which focuses on how news coverage both reflects and shapes the priorities of government officials, decision-makers, and elites.
The news agenda is defined as the list of events or issues that are portrayed in coverage at one point in time or across time. Events are discrete occurrences, such as the release of a government report on greenhouse gas emissions or a presidential speech on Iraq.
An issue can be a series of related events that are grouped together within a larger category of meaning such as climate change, the environment, the war in Iraq, or foreign policy. Sources include the voices, actors, or groups featured in news coverage such as government officials, environmentalists, or antiwar protestors.
The agenda-building literature is characterized by a diversity of theoretical and methodological approaches. However, a common thread is that news coverage is not a reflection of reality, but rather a manufactured product, determined by a hierarchy of social influences that span levels of analysis. Macro-level factors involve economic, cultural, and ideological variables along with ownership structure and industry trends. Mid-range influences include organizational routines, professional norms, journalist role perceptions, and source strategies. Individual-level influences derive from socio-economic, political, and psychological orientations of journalists (Shoemaker & Reese 1996).
Ideological And Industry-Level Factors
At this level of analysis, there is a heavy emphasis on research on the news agenda and its relevance to the media’s performance as a democratic institution. Critical theorists argue that media agendas tend to pay close attention only to the events, political figures, and issues that favor the interests of elites and that fall within a narrow range of political perspectives. The news agenda therefore serves a hegemonic function, maintaining a cohesive ideology and set of values that protects the status quo power structure.
Beyond this critical perspective, other research has explored the impact of ownership structure on news attention to community issues or to the plurality of perspectives considered newsworthy. Additionally, several scholars have examined how changes in technology and market forces have displaced coverage of policy-oriented hard news issues with coverage of more sensational and celebrityoriented soft news topics. A fourth area of research has focused on inter-media agenda setting, or the tendency for different types of news outlets to mirror closely the set of issues covered by just a few national news organizations or to converge simultaneously on a single high-profile national story (Reese 1991).
Organizational And Professional Factors
Most of the research on agenda building has focused on workplace and professional-level influences that shape news attention. This research investigates the unofficial set of ground rules that govern the interactions between journalists and their sources, leading to a negotiation of newsworthiness. This co-production of news often privileges attention to certain issues, views, and societal actors over others (Berkowitz 1992; Cook 1998).
News organizations are profit-driven enterprises that are chiefly concerned with transforming complex events into appealing stories for their news consumers. Faced with financial, political, and time pressures, journalists routinize their daily work by relying on news values such as prominence, conflict, drama, proximity, timeliness, and objectivity. Moreover, they rely heavily on storytelling themes and narrative to package complex events and issues and to make them appealing to specific audiences. In reporting the news, they follow a set of socially prescribed role expectations that are based on organizational rules, professionally derived standards of ethics and quality, and societal expectations relative to commonly held beliefs such as patriotism or religion.
In order to further promote predictability, journalists have a tendency to rely heavily on routine channel sources and information subsidies. Examples include official government actions and events, the release of scientific journal articles or expert reports, and other pseudo-events. Finally, media organizations make predictable the unexpected by assigning their journalists to news bureaus and beats, including government institutions or to a societal sector such as science or business (Shoemaker & Reese 1996).
These routines result in systematic patterns in news attention and sourcing. Studies find that the majority of news stories are source-generated, with government and industry officials having the strongest impact on the news agenda. Other actors – including lawyers, doctors, celebrities, and scientists – wield media influence because of their perceived social legitimacy. Few stories are “discovered” by way of enterprise reporting. In most cases, even objective indicators related to the economy or the environment are made newsworthy by the actions and claims of sources. In addition, the authority bias of journalists tends to lead to a close indexing of only the official views expressed in a policy debate, ignoring in coverage nonofficial sources that might offer dissent (Bennett 1990). As a result, in order to gain media agenda status, many nonauthoritative sources are forced to piggyback on favorable focusing events and/or invest heavily in cultivating personal contacts with journalists.
The heavy reliance by journalists on familiar narratives means that in order to generate continued coverage of an issue, journalists must be able to fit the issue into a broader storyline. Visible conflict, personality clashes, and dramatic claims in relation to risks and morality allow journalists to construct a “news saga” that they can cover for more than a day or week. As a result, issues that remain defined in more thematic and technical ways are less likely to receive wider media attention.
Social Compositional And Individual-Level Factors
In shaping the selection of stories, several studies have focused on the political and social predispositions of journalists. In the US context, partisanship remains the most contentious among possible individual-level influences. In defense of journalists, many scholars argue that it is much more likely that professional and organizational norms override any political bias in coverage decisions. Yet survey research shows a significant relationship between the political beliefs of journalists and their responses to hypothetical coverage decisions, even among American journalists who prefer a tradition of political neutrality (Patterson & Donsbach 1996). Other research finds connections between the racial, religious, class, and geographic composition of newsrooms and the selection of stories (Shoemaker & Reese 1996). More recent work applies theories from social psychology to understand journalistic decisions. This emerging approach argues that the cognitive and emotional needs of journalists can help explain common agenda-building phenomena, ranging from pack journalism to political bias.
Researching The Agenda-Building Process
Each approach to observing and tracking the agenda-building process features certain advantages and limitations. Content analysis is by far the most frequently used method. In combination with measuring the amount of media attention to an event or issue, this “visible source impact” approach (Berkowitz 1992) also involves tracking the standing given in coverage to certain actors or institutions over others. Researchers may also closely examine news stories for the use of routine channel sources that appear to have served as the news peg for coverage. The more prominent the actor in coverage or the more frequently appearing a specific type of news peg, the greater the influence that particular source is inferred to have on the agenda-building process.
A limitation for many of these content studies is their scale, with studies focusing on news coverage of an issue at just a few news outlets, over just a few years, within a single national setting, or using the agenda at the national elite newspapers as a proxy for the broader news agenda. Several studies have tracked coverage of an issue over a decade or more, identifying the important reciprocal relationships between media agendas and policy arenas. Content analysis studies are also limited in that they only examine news coverage as the final product of the agendabuilding process. Even though several valid and reliable interpretations are possible from this type of analysis, there remains some degree of uncertainty regarding the actual inputs to the process or the specifics of the process itself. Other studies attempt to build on the “visible source impact” approach with a tallying of source–media coverage success rates. This method involves comparing press releases from key sources and then noting their success rate in shaping news coverage.
Though employed less frequently than content analysis, survey studies of journalists add many valuable insights to agenda building and news coverage decisions. In survey studies, self-reported attitudes and behaviors of journalists are often correlated with news organization attributes and/or news content measures. More innovative survey studies have embedded quasi-experimental designs that tap the influence of role perceptions and political beliefs in shaping coverage decisions. These survey studies, however, can be very expensive, with respondent participation rates a function of cost. Finally, future research needs to return to the classic ethnographic and observational studies of journalistic decision-making. Although these methods can be time-intensive, expensive, and suffer from either a lack of representativeness and/or observational bias, this original work helped lay the foundation for an entire field of media sociology, and should not be abandoned.
Regardless of the method applied to the study of agenda building, future research faces several central questions. First is the reality that no single issue exists in isolation from other issues. Every news organization has a limited carrying capacity, meaning that the outlet can pay attention to only a finite number of problems at any given time. Consequently, unless carrying capacity increases, the rise of one issue to agenda status means that another issue is likely to be bumped from consideration (Hilgartner & Bosk 1988). Yet despite this “natural law” of public arenas, a major problem is that very few agenda-building studies examine coverage of an issue within the context of the wider competitive media environment.
Second, with technological changes and increasing audience fragmentation, future research needs to explore more carefully the relationship between traditional news organizations and their many emerging competitors. Conservative and religious cable news channels, pan-Arab satellite TV news, Internet portals such as Google, Yahoo!, and YouTube, and even portable handheld devices are all examples of alternative news agendas. Moreover, with the rise of these new media platforms, the definition and role of the journalist is changing, with bloggers and documentary filmmakers shaping traditional news agendas and reaching either mass publics and/or important targeted audiences.
Finally, since many agenda studies examine coverage of an issue or events only across a limited time period, very few researchers consider the potential power exerted in achieving agenda success early on in the history of a debate. For example, if in early coverage of an issue a select few sources can strategically define their position, as well as the alternatives available for discussion, they can shield themselves in future coverage from counterarguments, making it difficult for opposing sources to even gain news attention. In addition, by gaining agenda status and subsequently altering the framing of an issue, sources can control which news beats or types of journalists cover an issue and even influence the type of policy arena where debate over an issue takes place. This connection between agenda building, frame building, and its impact on the trajectory of an issue remains an undertheorized area of research.
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