I’m a professor, so I can’t help but occasionally use a theoretical perspective when looking at what’s going on in today’s news media landscape. If I don’t, I risk losing my tweed jacket with the brown elbow patches. (You get one handed to you for free on Ph.D. graduation day. Okay, not really.)
In mass communication’s academic circles, Agenda Setting theory is a classic that dates back to the early 1970s. Maxwell McCombs and Donald L. Shaw developed it while studying how news organizations covered the 1968 presidential campaign. Here’s how the International Agenda Setting Conference explains it on their website:
“According to the agenda-setting theory … mass media set the agenda for public opinion by highlighting certain issues. Studying the way political campaigns were covered in the media, Shaw and McCombs found that the main effect of news media was agenda-setting, i.e. telling people not what to think, but what to think about.”
That last part is a core component of Agenda Setting, and it’s one you’ll hear oft repeated. The news media tell us what to think about (by covering particular issues and events deemed newsworthy) but not what to think.
If a report focuses on a presidential debate, for example, the news story would contain the facts about the event: where it was held, the major issues the candidates spoke about, and how audience members reacted to what they heard. The news organization set the agenda by telling consumers what to think about — the presidential debate. But it’s up to you, the consumer, to reach your own conclusions based on the information provided.
It appears to me that Agenda Setting no longer applies to America’s cable news outlets. Increasingly, I find that cable news programs are telling us less and less what certain topics to think about and more and more what to think about certain topics.
It’s exceedingly easy to find “round tables” or “panels” or individual “experts” sitting around with a moderator (or “news anchor,” if you will) doing nothing but providing us with their opinions about this topic or that event. Cable “news” programs are being driven by celebrity personalities who are paid primarily because of the ideological axes they grind for all to see. Even to my students, it’s easy to know which is the conservative cable news channel, which is the liberal cable news channel, and which is the cable news channel that is now apparently considering adding reality television to its lineup (dang).
None of this is news. I find it to be blather, frankly. And the point isn’t to inform the public about what important events happened today — a vital role journalism should fulfill in a healthy democracy. The point has become trying to influence what the public thinks about the important events that happened today.
These people are telling us what to think. And their corporate bosses are encouraging them to do it not to create a better informed society (which they aren’t doing, by the way), but to increase ratings so that they can charge advertisers more money.
Sadly enough, this formula is working. These are the types of programs with the highest numbers of cable viewers. And because cable companies will focus on making money — instead of focusing on serving the greater public good — we’re going to keep getting this type of programming.