Agenda Setting Theory, Its Functions And Criteria


The agenda-setting theory is one of the important tenets of mass communication and its relevancy continues to be seen even in the new era of modern media platforms away from the mainstream media. Since its emergence in 1972, the agenda-setting theory has proven to be one of the consistent theories whose viability and reliability have been accepted in the world of social science. This paper gives an analysis of the agenda-setting theory and discusses particular aspects that make the theory a good objective theory.

Keywords: agenda-setting, tenets, media.


The WV1 Agenda-Setting Theory by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw is an analytical, calculated and well-formulated process that has been constructed to determine how the media/press have the ability to deliver messages that they want the public to deem the most important. Through this delivery approach, they are able to manipulate the thinking patterns of targeted masses who are seeking answers during uncertain times. Media strategically frames topics to bear the most weight by simply injecting calculated, tailored information. This conveniently leads to media influencing which topics coincide with each other in the public mind. This is a good theory as it has the power and validity continues to gain despite increased multimedia platforms and channels such as social media, podcasts, and the internet, however, it may have a weakened effect on those that steer clear of multimedia platforms and base decisions off of free will. The Agenda Setting Theory satisfies all six scientific standards but may not have enough inclusive data results leaving it challenging to measure.

World View Categorization of Agenda Setting Theory

In accordance with characteristics and scholars associated with the Agenda Setting theory, it is categorized as a World View I theory. It is objective, scientific and quantitative in nature, and a typical social science theory, elements that define a WVI theory. Objectivity in the agenda-setting theory is revealed in its elaborate explanations of the influence of media on public opinion and has some aspect of prediction testability. According to Griffin, objective theories give insightful explanations of particular events or human behavior. Such theories make sense out of confusing phenomena hence bringing order to an otherwise chaotic situation. The theory also explains what influences particular occurrences or human behavior and shows a high level of predictability and application. The agenda-setting theory explains how the media can be used to shape and influence public opinion. It does this by selectively highlighting events and issues through various media outlets. This prominence causes subconscious retention of a particular issue in the minds of the public, who then interpret them as reality.

Apart from the objectivity aspect that makes the agenda-setting World View I theory, the theory is scientific and can be quantified. The agenda-setting theory is the work of two social scientists, Max McCombs and Donald Shaw. The theory has been scientifically tested, and its argument that the media can and is influencing public opinion was validated by numerous other scholars who found a similar relationship between the media and the public (Vargo 2018). This proves the reliability and testability of the agenda-setting theory as scientific and, therefore, a WVI theory.

The quantifiability of the theory can be challenging considering the nature of the theory as a social science. The majority of such theories are presented and interpreted in terms of linguistics, making them inferior to empirically quantifiable scientific theories. However, effective use survey methods can be used to measure the impact of various asserts and arguments of the agenda-setting theory. According to Griffin (2019), social researchers can use questionnaires or structured interviews to quantify findings relating to people’s behavior in relation to the past and after exposure to stimuli. Through such qualifications, social scientists establish a correlation between a certain phenomenon and human behavior. The agenda-setting theory exhibits the three main characteristics of WVI theories, including objectivity, scientific and quantifiability.

Central Tenets of the Agenda Setting Theory

Ideologies and principles of agenda-setting theory are rooted back in 1922 from Walter Lippman’s concern on the critical role played by the media in influencing public opinion. The theory was eventually formalized and well elaborated by McCombs and Shaw in 1972 through a publication in the Public Opinion Quarterly (Luo,2018; Nawak,2018). According to the theory, the mainstream media influences and sets the public agenda. The media does this in a way that does not technically tell the public what to think but might influence them on what to think about. The mass media utilizes a cognitive element referred to as accessibility. The media taps into this particular aspect by intentionally delivering particular information that is then retained in the minds of the audience. This information received is then unconsciously perceived by the public as reality hence shaping public opinion. This assertion is supported by extensive research from various scientists and scholars focusing on agenda-setting research. (Luo et al.,2018). The agenda-setting theory, therefore, forms an important tenet of mass communication in the world. There are two core tenets upon which the agenda-setting theory is built.

The first tenet of the agenda-setting theory is that the mainstem media controls reality. According to the theory, most often, the mainstream news outlets do not highlight issues as they are (Nowak,2018). Issues are reported after undergoing filtration; hence only some aspects of reality reach the masses. The media chooses for the public what they perceive as significant rather than letting the public discern issues of importance (Stern et al.,2020). Information is twisted to align with particular stakeholders’ popular opinions. According to McCombs and Shaw (n.d), the mainstream media has the ability to generate an agenda for the whole community despite the fact that individual members of the community could possess a different agenda from that of the community.

The second assumption of the agenda-setting theory is that mainstream media gives specific issues prominence over other issues. The more an issue is featured and highlighted in the media, the more it is perceived as of great importance by the public. Research on agenda-setting theory reveals that the media has far-reaching consequences on the public and influences matters such as policy making and related outcomes of the political process. Research from numerous scholars supports the idea that the media can impose public opinion about the relevance of specific issues (Nowak, 2018). In other terms, the mainstream media has the ability to tell the public what issues to think about through selective and consistent focus on the specific agenda of the day.

Functions of a “Good” Theory

A good theory fulfills the double objective of scientific knowledge and serves the function of explaining the past plus the presence and is able to predict the future.

Explanation of the Information

In the words of Abraham Kaplan, a good theory makes sense out of otherwise confusing phenomena relating to an event or human tendencies (Griffin 2019). A good theory, therefore, must be able to clarify a situation that could have remained unexplainable if the theory had never existed in the first place. In other words, it brings about order in a chaotic situation. According to Griffin (2019), a good theory provides a succinct description of the process, answers the question of why it puts great emphasis on the most crucial aspects of the object, and does not give unnecessary focus on things that make little or no difference. Agenda setting happens through a precise cognitive process referred to as “accessibility.” According to this process, the more frequently and dominantly an issue is highlighted in the media, the more it is retained and accessed in the memory of the audiences. Research indicates that respondents refer to the most prominent issues in the media when queried on matters or rather problems currently facing the world. For instance, the current war between Ukraine and Russia has received worldwide attention from the media and is cited as the case of inflation and high fuel prices being experienced globally.

Prediction of Future Events

Having the ability to predict the future is another function of a good theory. Social science theories such as the agenda-setting theory predict the future tendencies of humans in response to a particular stimulus. These types of theories are based on cause-and-effect terms (Griffin, 2019). According to the agenda-setting theory, the media can influence and shape public opinion through selective construction and presentation of issues and events to an uncritical audience. As a result of the dominance and shaping of issues, the public perceives the constructed media reality as the true accounts. However, the theory is not absolute in its prediction and therefore calls for humility on the part of the scientists. This is due to the fact that a theory could be general and not particularly specific to any individual, and even then, it should be presented in terms of probability and general tendencies.

Although applicable to the general masses, the agenda-setting theory is not accommodative to cases of confirmation bias. It is unrealistic to conclude that the masses are influenced by the media in the same way. Part of the audience is a group of people whose minds are already made up about a particular topic. This group is rarely influenced by the media and what the media portrays is mere confirmation of their pre-existing opinions. In such a case, the media does not have the power to form a public opinion but rather provide proof of existing biases. The agenda-setting theory fulfills all the two functionalities of a good theory as it gives a clear explanation of how the media influences public opinion and can be used to predict human behavior despite its inapplicability to critical audiences.

Evaluative Criteria of a “Good” Theory

Apart from the functionality aspects fulfilled by good social theories are evaluated in terms of relative simplicity, practical utility, testability and quantifiability (Griffin 2019). The agenda-setting theory meets all the aforementioned criterion standards, although relatively in some. It is therefore, a good theory as per the set evaluation criteria standards.

Relative Simplicity

Simplicity is one of the main attributes associated with a good theory. According to Griffin (2019), good objective theory must be as simple as possible or should not have unnecessary complicities. like scientific theories that abide by Occam’s razor principle, which states “any assumptions, variable or concepts that aren’t really necessary to explain what’s going on.” This assertion is also reflected in the rule of parsimony which dictates that among two theories explaining a particular phenomenon, the simplest one should be given preference. The agenda-setting theory depicts this principle in every one of its aspects in explaining how the media shapes public opinion in the most simple and verifiable manner that can be understood by both scholars and laymen.


Every good theory should be testable to either prove or disprove its applicability. According to Griffin (2019), a theory should be stated in such a way that makes it possible for one to taste the hypothesis empirically. A theory should therefore allow testing to prove its applicability and generality to be considered a “good” theory. It is therefore important for theorists should understand what the theory is and is not and to avoid “enhancing” or unfairly discarding it in order to transform it into something different. Be aware of the theory’s range of applicability; test it, but don’t go too far. Recognize when the theory predicts something and when it does not, and finally recognize situations when the theory is silent (Lange et al.,2021). A study by Jones et al. (2006) on the effects of mass and interpersonal communications on breast cancer reflected the predictions of agenda-setting theory as the findings were consistent with anticipated patterns of the theory. This assertion is also shared by Yang and Stone (2003), who cited consistency in the prediction of their study with the agenda-setting theory. This is clearly an indication of the application and hypothesis testing of the agenda-setting theory, making it a good theory.

Practical Utility

The usefulness of a theory is most definitely one of the main characteristics that make a theory good. The usefulness of the theory should be untimely and applicable to various situations. According to Griffin (2019), the main goal of social science is to enlighten people and empower them in various aspects of life. Therefore, a good theory should adequately address situations that otherwise could have been difficult to explain or influence without the theoretical frameworks and patterns coherent in theory. In other words, people and society in general benefit from the knowledge and wisdom of the theory. Application of the agenda-setting theory is commonly seen in political ads, elections campaigns, and ideological issues that concern the public. Its practicality and application are also reflected in modern media platforms, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter (Carazo-Barrantes,2021; Cheng et al,2019). The media houses utilize the agenda-setting theory by tweaking information in any particular way in order to control and influence public opinion. Editors, who in this case are the gatekeepers of information, can regulate not only the type of information fed to the public but also the amount of information accessed and hence shaping public perception toward an individual or a specific agenda. The application indicates the usefulness of the agenda-setting theory to society and various stakeholders, and therefore it is a good theory.


Quantification of scientific theories is done numerically to measure the degree of similarities, accuracy or differences from a particular point of reference (Griffin 2019). This is possible with physical science theories due to the fact that they aim to reflect reality. They are therefore required to present, measure and report their theoretical assertions and interpretations numerically. Quantification of social science theories is however difficult as their interpretation and findings are presented linguistically and hence open to interpretation (Naser, 2020). Physical science theories are regarded as superior to social science theories for the mere fact that quantitative methods are superior to qualitative approaches to theory measurement. Although it is challenging to measure the effectiveness of agenda-setting theories qualitatively, surveys are used to quantify the findings used to answer some of the research questions. Surveys are used to answer various research questions relating to the effects of the consumption of particular feeds and their effects. The results of such surveys are presented numerically or as percentages hence exhibiting the very characteristic of quantification.


The agenda-setting theory is a good theory as it meets all the standard criteria and functionalities of a good objective theory. According to Griffin (2019), a good theory fulfills the double objective of scientific knowledge. A good theory serves the function of explaining the past plus the presence and is able to predict the future. Apart from that, the theory must also fulfill the other four standards criterion that makes a good objective theory which includes relative simplicity, testability, practical utility, and quantifiability. The agenda-setting theory meets all the standards in regards to functionality, prediction, simplicity and applicability in different situations. Although agenda-setting theory meets all the facets of a good objective theory, it is challenging to measure it objectively and make quantifications because it deals will people’s inner thoughts and beliefs. However, this standard can be attained through a survey approach. The agenda-setting theory is it is therefore a good objective theory as it satisfies all the six scientific standards of a good objective theory.


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