When does the public's issue agenda affect the media's issue agenda (and vice-versa)? Developing a framework for media-public influence

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Objective. The agenda-setting literature has demonstrated the media's ability to set the issue agenda for the public. One byproduct of this work is that researchers have produced some evidence suggesting that the audience will, on occasion, set the issue agenda for the media. Given disparate sets of findings, researchers do not have a framework to better understand on which issues the media will set the agenda for the public and on which issues the public will set the agenda for the media. It is the goal of this article to provide empirical support for a framework suggesting that the events comprising issue areas predetermine the direction of influence between the media's and the public's issue agendas. Methods. I construct a historical data set comprised of 35,000 stories from the nightly network news and responses to Gallup's Most Important Problem question. I look for evidence of causal influence between news issue content and public issue concerns using Granger analysis and vector autoregression. Results. Issue areas comprised of spectacular events, such as defense, will be reported by the media and subsequently affect the salience the audience assigns to those issues. In issues not normally comprised of spectacular and singular events, such as energy and environment, public issue concerns appear to drive issue coverage in the news. Issues such as transportation and education, which comprise few spectacular events and little public concern, will receive sparse coverage in the media. Conclusion. The findings provide support for a framework based on events; the types of events that typically comprise issue areas will affect the likelihood of those issues coming on the news agenda. This then affects the direction of influence between the public and the media. The framework supported here allows for the integration of the media effects and media content literatures. This has implications for understanding how the news agenda is constructed and how the commercial media meets democratic ideals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)796-815
Number of pages20
JournalSocial Science Quarterly
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2009


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)

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