Communication Concepts 6: Agenda-Setting|
James W Dearing and Everett M Rogers, London: Sage, 1996.
ISBN 0-7619-0562-6 (ISBN 0-7619-0563-4 pbk)
Reviewed by: David Quin
In the beginning was the agenda, and the agenda was with the powerful. But it was not until 1972 that McCombs and Shaw came up with a sufficiently catchy name for the game. And thus began the continuing attempt to provide empirical, quantitative evidence for what Walter Lippmann drew attention to in 1922 and David Hume in 1758.
In Agenda-Setting, James W Dearing (Associate Professor of Communication at Michigan State University) and Everett M Rogers (Professor and Chair, Department of Communications and Journalism at the University of New Mexico) categorise, draw distinctions, and summarise research into the media, public and policy agendas. They bring order to a field that needed it.
Judged on internal criteria, the book is 'on the whole' a good summary of agenda-setting research. Judged on external criteria, it is seriously inadequate.
The main theme of the book, the authors point out, is the "broadening of scholarly research in recent years from hierarchy studies to include investigations of a single issue (or a small interacting number of issues), either studied over time in a sociological approach or studied experimentally in a psychological approach". (p88)
They conclude with a brief critique of agenda-setting studies, suggest topics for future examination and call for more multi-method research to increase the validity of conclusions and allow study of new aspects of agenda-setting.
There are interesting examples of research, not least the authors' own study of why the AIDS issue did not get firmly on to the media agenda in the US until about 5,000 people had died from the disease. (One problem with social science research is the crudity of measurement; however, the authors' net was finely meshed enough to include the fact that coverage of AIDS by the New York Times was delayed because its key medical writer broke his leg.)
Other examples are banal. Illustrating how the policy agenda can influence the public agenda, the authors refer to a Canadian study which discovered: "People who had curbside recycling in their community (a public policy in place) and who had pro-environmental attitudes engaged in recycling behaviors. People who did not have curbside recycling in their community (no policy enacted), even those who had pro-environmental attitudes, tended not to recycle." (p75) The mountain of hard labour produces a mouse. Such research could itself be recycled.
Scientific paraphernalia and jargon can give the illusion that something important is being said when it is blindingly banal. As regards jargon, the book is described on the back cover as a "reader-friendly volume". The following passage indicates that the authors are, if not reader-hostile, reader-indifferent, unless the reader happens to be equally at home in barbarous jargon: "The introduction of experimentation marked another methodological move toward disaggregation in agenda-setting research, and a focus on the micro-level behavior involved in the consequences of issue salience." (p63) Further on, "Derksen and Gartrell (1993) demonstrate the importance of conceptualizing and operationalizing recursivity in a study of the social context of recycling behavior in Canada." (p75)
Any activity can become an isolated game. Specialists especially risk setting up a screen of abstraction, euphemism and jargon between themselves and reality, looking at the cardiogram instead of the heart. But there is more going on in this book than specialist semi-detachment. Although the authors appear to be liberally concerned about bad things, they seem oddly insulated from the realities of power, from a world where Henry Kissinger can be awarded a peace prize.
They describe agenda-setting as "a process of social construction" -this in a country where a handful of corporations control the media, where, in the interests of balance, Tweedledum is allowed to debate an issue with Tweedledee. They appear to believe that the US is a healthily pluralist society where competing powers check and balance each other in all matters. They admit that the White House - along with the NYT and spectacular trigger events -plays "a dominant role in putting an issue on the US media agenda". 'Put on' is a quaint phrase to describe what the White House and its agents did to the media agenda during the Gulf War.
Addressing the question, "Does the public agenda influence the policy agenda?", the authors reply: "Research evidence is less strong." (p92). In a country where two-thirds of federal revenue goes to war, do we really need a ten-year quantitative study to answer that one? A NYT poll on the eve of the Gulf War showed that 56pc of Americans backed an international peace conference being set up, while 37pc did not. But President Bush was not reading the lips of the 56pc majority. When it comes to the crunch and it can get away with it, the White House ignores the public agenda.
There's no great mystery about agenda-setting. And, insofar as power controls the media, the media are servile and mechanical.
In their conclusion, the authors suggest some questions for future research, such as: "What keeps an issue on the national agenda over a lengthy period of time?"; "Is the media agenda-setting process limited to news issues?", and "How does one issue compete for salience with another issue?" I would suggest some additional topics. What is the role of advertisers in silencing the agenda of the poor, the old and the marginalised? What part is played in agenda-setting by new technology; by the high salaries of certain media stars; by television rules under which an in-depth interview lasts around 180 seconds; by internalised ideology, by indifference (which is the violence of the comfortable and complacent), by racism?
In the authors' critique of agenda-setting they examine research methods, but they do not 'critique' agenda-setting research itself. An attempt to reproduce the rigour and precision of science in an area of human nuance and complexity has its limits.
Imagine a substantial, multi-method study of agenda-setting during the Gulf War. It might not reveal anything we do not already suspect, although it would provide solid evidence to back up observation, intuition or common sense. But now imagine a book about the same topic written by a first-class journalist, historian, political scientist or communications expert, giving a rich, multi-dimensional account of the many factors involved in agenda-setting during the war: manipulation of news, censorship (by Iraq, of course - the West provided "reporting guidelines"), self-censorship, careerism, personality, broadcasting technology, Pentagon jargon, the portrayal of war as Nintendo game, the focus on dead cormorants instead of dead civilians, the role of a servile media and of spurious notions of journalistic objectivity leading to a TV commentary parade of so-called experts (retired colonels, a former CIA director, conservative thinktankers); the trivialisation and silencing of dissenting voices; the part played by an all-American NBC loyalist in preventing pool-passless Robert Fisk from playing his part in agenda-setting. Smart bombs and stupid journalists. Et cetera.
We do not need scientific methodologies to spotlight what was revealed by one journalist who, referring to Saddam Hussein, asked a US general: "How long is it going to take us to lick this guy?"
Another issue, therefore, for agenda-setting researchers to ask themselves is: what are the limitations of agenda-setting research? It introduces scientific criteria to a field where unfounded opinion and prejudice can run riot, and it has come up with useful and occasionally fascinating evidence. But researchers should occasionally remind themselves of its limitations, particularly those of quantitative methods where these are inadequate. And some should also, from the point of view of the powerless, take a close look at the agenda of the powerful. Researchers who, like Dearing and Rogers, blind themselves to the pervasive, insidious workings of what Edmund Said has called "coercive orthodoxy" may illuminate certain issues in their detail, but their treatment of agenda-setting at the macro level will be skewed and superficial.
A final question. Why do the authors fail to mention one prominent researcher into the manufacturing of consent? Why is Chomsky not on their agenda?
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