Lesson 1: Media’s Agenda Setting Role
Media play a central role in setting and shaping the public agenda—the individuals, issues, events, and topics that are seen as vital to society and public interest.
At the heart of media’s agenda setting is the premise that media do not necessarily tell us what to think, but they do tell us what to think about.
The foundational agenda setting study found—in researching the 1968 presidential election—that the issues voters felt were most important to the country closely matched media coverage of the election. In other words, the study found strong evidence that media played an important role in setting the agenda for the election; the issues media reported most were the same as what voters considered to be most important. The authors explained, “The media are the major primary sources of national political information; for most, mass media provide the best—and only—easily available approximation of ever-changing political realities”. Certainly the ways in which we get our news has changed drastically since 1968, but decades of agenda setting research have supported agenda setting’s premise. Media help parse out for the public the issues they need to know when forming attitudes. Media set the agenda for public discourse.Next Page: Second-level Agenda Setting
Second-level Agenda Setting
An offshoot of the original agenda-setting paradigm is called “second-level agenda setting.” While agenda setting explores the macro processes of media’s shaping of public opinion—by highlighting the issues that are more or less important for public attention—second-level agenda setting explores which aspects of a certain issue should be considered more or less salient. For example, (and admittedly offered as a very rudimentary example) during the summer and fall of 2016, we heard almost non-stop media coverage regarding “Hillary Clinton’s emails.”
Agenda setting would tease out the importance media placed on how much we should think about those emails in the context of the presidential election; is it more or less important to think about the topic of Hillary’s emails compared to the topic of the domestic economy, foreign policy, or human rights? Diving deeper, second-level agenda setting, then, would focus on the salience given to a specific aspect of Hillary’s emails. Is it more important to think about the ethics of having a private email server or should we focus instead on certain email content? Similarly, if, media had decided it was more important to think about the economy than emails, second-level agenda setting argues that we also can look to media for guidance regarding which aspect of the economy should be most salient to consider when forming our opinions (unemployment, GDP, stock market, etc.).
So, the media are powerful. They might not tell us necessarily what to think (whether we should choose A vs. B), but they do play a strong role in telling us what to think about (that A and B are indeed the two most important things to ponder), and which aspects of those topics are important in coming to our conclusions. In other words, media set the public agenda. As practitioners, it is important therefore to understand and respect this role. We can learn a lot about what our publics might consider to be more and less topically salient, and what that might mean for our own communication priorities. Accordingly, understanding the specific tools and techniques regarding how media frame our news, helps us—in turn—understand how media influence the public agenda.
So, if we accept the premise that media are influential in setting the public agenda, we also must understand the various devices media use to report—or more specifically, frame—the news. Media framing analysis goes beyond identifying which issues (and aspects of issues) are important to think about, and explores the parameters of the discussion itself—the words, symbols, overall content, and tone used to frame the topic. When compared to agenda setting, framing includes “a broader range of cognitive processes—such as moral evaluations, causal reasoning, appeals to principles, and recommendations for treatment of problems." In other words, if agenda setting tells us what issues and topics to think about, and second-level agenda setting suggests which aspects of those topics are more/less salient, media framing takes it another step by exploring “how” specific devices can shape our understanding of the topic itself.
Framing’s roots go back, in part, to Erving Goffman’s (1974) exploration of how we organize our own experience. He argued that we experience life—both in terms of how we receive and interpret, and how we engage—through frames. What we consider “reality” depends on the frames we employ to approach, analyze, and understand the world around us. Accordingly, given the power of the media in setting the public agenda, then, how media frame certain topics and events influences this process, and directly affects how we “know what we know” about the world around us.
As Todd Gitlin explained, “frames are principles of selection, emphasis, and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters." Moreover, “Media frames are persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual."
For example, does a news article use the term “death tax” or “estate tax,” “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented worker,” “pro-choice” or “pro-abortion,” “accuser” or “victim,” “homosexual marriage” or “gay marriage” or “marriage equality”? Similarly, was the central character in a story “irate” “concerned” “upset” or “voicing concern”? In the process, were they demanding “special rights” or “equal rights”? Now, consider what a news article implies if it explains, “A local citizen advocating for ‘illegal aliens’ was ‘irate’ at city hall Tuesday, demanding ‘special rights,’” compared to an article that explains, “A local citizen advocating for ‘undocumented workers’ was at city hall Tuesday ‘voicing concern’ over the lack of ‘equal rights.’”
Similarly, was the central character in a story “irate” “concerned” “upset” or “voicing concern”? In the process, were they demanding “special rights” or “equal rights”? Now, consider what a news article implies if it explains, “A local citizen advocating for ‘illegal aliens’ was ‘irate’ at city hall Tuesday, demanding ‘special rights,’” compared to an article that explains, “A local citizen advocating for ‘undocumented workers’ was at city hall Tuesday ‘voicing concern’ over the lack of ‘equal rights.’”
Certainly this is an extreme example, demonstrating very specific perspectives, but it helps convey the power a story has in reporting the news. If we limit our news media consumption to few or even one media source, then, the frames used to report on that event or topic imply a very specific perspective of reality. Of course, journalists do not typically intend to frame a story in a way that twists or eschews the core meaning of the news being reported. Indeed, as you will see in our practice scenario, most examples of framing are much more nuanced than the above scenario. Journalists use frames, however, to help break down often-complex situations into digestible content for public consumption. In the process, as Goffman suggested, they inevitably do so using their own lens and experience—their own frames.
How to Evaluate Media Frames
So, what are the different ways to analyze how media frame our news? Two widely used paradigms are particularly instructive. And while they result from research specifically focused on political news coverage, these frameworks have broad application beyond politics. First, Entman (1993, 2004) argued that articles typically contain at least two of four main types of frames—frames that define a specific problem, diagnose a cause of that problem, make a moral judgment regarding that problem, and/or suggest remedies to that problem. We can identify these frames by analyzing the combination of key terms used (as the earlier example demonstrated), the types of information sources selected (or omitted), the chosen spokespersons, and the embedded images. As Entman explained, “These four framing elements hold together in a kind of cultural logic, each helping to sustain the others with the connections among them cemented more by custom and convention than by the principles of syllogistic logic.".
The second instructive media framing paradigm argues that news is conveyed as either a stand-alone, one-time event or just another example of a trend we’ve seen recur over time given a broader context. These types of frames are classified as either episodic (stand alone) or thematic (part of a broader context/trend). Iyengar (1991) teased out these frames in his study of how television news frames political issues. In addition to outlining the fundamental difference between episodic and thematic frames, he that the type of frame chosen influences how we attribute responsibility, which is quite a strong influencer of how we will shape our attitudes and opinions. In other words, if someone sees something as a standalone, episodic event, we place a different level of responsibility on the person or organization we see as responsible, rather than if we see the event as part of a longer, thematic trend. Certainly someone who is seen as responsible for an issue that keeps recurring, faces a far higher level of scrutiny than if it is seen as a random event. Iyengar summarized, “Policy preferences, assessments of presidential performance, and evaluations of public institutions are all powerfully influenced by attributions of causal and treatment responsibility. Attributions and the political opinions they generate permit citizens to exercise political control, even though the public’s level of factual knowledge is low."
Episodic vs. Thematic Framing: An Example
For example, take the 2016 Josh Brown NFL domestic abuse case. Here are the two opening paragraphs from a CBS News article describing what happened:
“The NFL is reopening its investigation of a domestic violence complaint against New York Giants’ placekicker Josh Brown. Newly released documents show the athlete admitted he verbally and physically abused his former wife. Brown was suspended for the first game of the season, but critics say that punishment was too lenient.
Police in Washington have decided not to file charges against Brown, but these latest revelations and other red flags are raising more questions about how the league deals with domestic abuse issues, reports CBS News’ Dana Jacobson.
Brown was back on the field in week two after the NFL suspended him just one game this season. That decision followed their investigation into a 2015 arrest stemming from a domestic abuse complaint made by Brown’s now ex-wife, Molly.”
(CBS, n.a., Oct. 21, 2016)
Compare that coverage with the opening paragraphs by the Washington Post article on the same story on the same day:
“Thursday’s news that New York Giants owner John Mara knew that his place kicker, Josh Brown, abused his wife yet signed him to a free agent contract anyway — and the sidebar that the NFL’s investigation of the allegations was something of a clown-car affair — shouldn’t really be all that surprising. The Ray Rice fiasco showed that investigating claims of domestic abuse isn’t the NFL’s strong suit. But it did show that the league and its teams — including the Giants, hailed as a model franchise for decades — learned exactly nothing from their missteps in 2014, when Rice was sanctioned fully only after TMZ broadcast the video of him punching out his fiancee.
How can an entity that is so good at making money, at creating a product so enticing that millions of Americans spend one day a week consuming it and only it, be so bad at investigating such allegations?”
(Bonesteel, Washington Post, Oct. 21, 2016)
In the first article, the story focuses on the news specific to Josh Brown—an episodic frame. In the second, the article briefly (vaguely) alludes to the Josh Brown story, in order to tell a broader, more thematic story, indicating higher levels of responsibility and lack of oversight.
Macro vs. Micro-Level Media Framing Analysis
Beyond showing the types of questions media framing analyses can investigate, Entman and Iyengar’s models also demonstrate the importance of a systematic approach in doing so. There are several reasons why a systematic approach to media analysis is important. First, it helps us move beyond generalizations and vague statements such as “I like that article” or “Not sure I agree with what they’re saying,” by helping us tease out the specific factors that led us to those conclusions; we can point to specific examples that influence our interpretation. Second, a systematic approach allows for an apples-to-apples comparison across news coverage of a specific topic. Third, as we will discuss in the second lesson, systematically analyzing media coverage helps inform our public relations lens, by telling us what we need to know in terms of news that could affect our organization and how we should respond.
So, while we can apply Entman and Iyengar’s specific rubrics for analyzing news—identifying the problem, solution, responsible party, and moral judgment, as well as determining if an article is episodic or thematic—it is also informative to take a step back and ask how these principles can be applied in our own daily analysis of news coverage. To keep it simple, I like to think about framing analysis happening at the macro level and micro level.
The macro level of analysis looks at the big picture, and the context through which the news is provided.
- Is the article long or short?
- What is the headline?
- Which images have been chosen (if any)?
- Are there specific call outs in the form of takeaway quotes or stats, made larger or presented in a different font to bring additional attention to specific content?
- Are there hyperlinks available to other “related” content?
- For print coverage, is the article on the first page, above the fold, or included in a different section?
- For online coverage, is the article on the homepage, or included in a different tab?
For example, shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, he appointed Steve Bannon as his chief of staff—a controversial move given Bannon’s past comments about certain minority groups. Take the following two screenshots from the front page of two major news sources, captured within 10 seconds of each other, in the midst of media discussing the controversy. Certainly the macro-level analyses specific to placement, context, and headline tone suggest different frames.
In contrast, micro-level analysis follows more along the lines of Entman and Iyengar’s frameworks. Once you have a sense of the macro dynamics being used to frame, the “micro-level” questions ask about the (1) specific language/terms being used, (2) types of content chosen, (3) spokespersons used, (4) overall tone, and the (5) implicit takeaway message.
- In analyzing the language used to report the news, determine if there are specifically “values-laden” terms being used, meaning terms that convey a specific value statement. As the earlier example demonstrated, using “pro-abortion” rather than “pro-choice” contributes to a frame that conveys a specific stance on the issue of abortion.
- In analyzing the content chosen (and not chosen), does the article present more quotes or more statistics, and what does that content suggest regarding how the article is being framed? Moreover, how does the content vary from news source to news source? What are the different types of content being presented?
- In analyzing the spokespersons quoted, determine the type of spokespersons used and if more than one is used. In the case of multiple spokespersons, then, determine if there are any false equivalents—meaning spokespersons that when juxtaposed do not reflect an apples-to-apples comparison. For example, many LGBTQ advocacy leaders I have worked with have discussed how media sometimes juxtapose their perspective with a religious leader’s perspective. Both perspectives are valid, but they do not present two comparable perspectives. One is the perspective of a religious leader focused on very specific religious aspects, and the other is the perspective of an advocacy leader focused on political and legal change.
- As you start to discern all of these aspects, you can determine the article’s overall tone. Together, does the content convey a positive, negative, or neutral tone? Is it hopeful or pessimistic?
- Finally, when you take a step back, what is the overarching takeaway? What does this article teach you about the given topic?
Implications for PR
At the end of the day, when conducting media framing analyses we have to ask ourselves, “If this was the only news source I referenced and therefore the only coverage I will read about a specific topic, what would I know (and not know) compared to looking at different coverage?” It seems like common sense, but everyone has different media routines. We get our news from many different sources, which use many competing frames to report on a topic—one story told many different ways.
Media framing (and its influence on “what we know to be true”) parallels the Indian fable about the blind men and the elephant. So the story goes, an elephant appeared in a village one day. Several blind men, who did not know what an elephant was, went to find out. Each man touched the elephant to determine what an elephant was like. Those who touched the elephant’s legs described the animal as a type of pillar. Those who touched the tail described a rope. Those who touched the trunk thought it was like a type of snake. (You get the picture.) The men argued over which definition was true–of course they were all true–but no single perspective painted the complete picture. It required many perspectives to paint the picture of the whole. There is real risk when it comes to media consumption, then, to limit our perspective to one source.
As public relations practitioners we therefore have an ethical responsibility to scan a variety of media in our daily role in order to get the whole picture determine the best approach in responding to our publics. The next lesson will address this function, and how we can employ media framing principles to enhance our environmental scanning role.
Case Study: The NFL’s Concussion Calamity
First, download these three articles. Before walking through the discussion below, take a few minutes to read through each, taking notes about the various micro and/or macro frames being used. As you move to the second and third article, start thinking about how the frames compare. What information is being added or removed? Once you’re done, take a look at the discussion below.
Article 1 (Word doc)
Article 2 (Word doc)
Article 3 (PDF)
This lesson addressed the important (and influential) role media play in conveying our news, the ways in which media frame the news, and what that coverage implies about any given topic. Accordingly, the lesson also emphasized the importance of analyzing multiple articles reporting on the same topic to determine the various ways in which a single story is presented and possibly interpreted. This case allows us to practice doing just that. As you have probably heard / seen / read, there has been ongoing (indeed increasing) coverage regarding concussions in the National Football League. The issue is not really the fact that football players are at constant risk to suffer concussions. Rather, controversy has emerged in recent years that the long-term effects from concussions are far worse than originally thought, and it seems the NFL might have known these risks but never disclosed publicly. As a result, 5,000 players have filed legal action against the NFL.
The NFL has reached an initial settlement in which players who have been diagnosed with severe neurological conditions (such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s) can receive as much as $5 million to cover medical expenses. A case this big, of course, has captured a lot of media attention. As they say, though, it’s complicated. There has been question over who should pay, for example, and there have been appeals regarding the settlement amount itself. So, the case has been in court, and an important ruling occurred at the end of October 2016.
The three attached articles are from three major news sources written within a day of each other. Each article covers the news of the same ruling, but in different ways. As you read, first look at the macro-level of analysis. You’ll notice that the lengths of the articles vary from less than a page to three pages—from 201 words to 749 words to be exact. The images used in telling the story also differ. One article includes a graph showing how common concussions are in various sports. Another has a link to the court filing itself. Similarly, one article has a picture of the presiding judge, another shows a player being hauled off the field, and another includes a picture of a man in a suit with no caption at all. You might ask, “Well, so what?” Ok, consider the headline for the article with the picture of the player being hauled off the field: “NFL’s Latest Concussion Setback Carries Billion-Dollar Price Tag.” Compare that to the headline for the article with the picture of the judge: “Judge Tells N.F.L. to Reveal Some Secrets About Concussions.” Arguably, the first article (at least at first glance) seems to frame the news in terms of impact concussions have on the league and players, while the second article seems to frame the news in terms of the legal details of the case. Both articles, however, include an additional image. The first—we’ll call it the player-focused article—also includes the graph showing rates of concussions across sports, clearly showing the heightened risk in football. The second—we’ll call it the legal-focused article—also includes the link to the court filing. In both cases, these images reinforce the frame of “player-focused” versus the frame of “legal-focused.” And we’ve only looked at the high-level, macro considerations.
Now, let’s take a quick look at the micro-level of analysis. As you read each article, note any differences between the terms being used, the types of content chosen, if people were quoted (and the types of people quotes), and the overall tone. For example, what’s different between the lead sentence in article #1, “New York State Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey K. Oing has ordered for the NFL to reveal some of the league's information on how medical officials handled brain injuries over the past two decades,” and article #3, “A judge’s decision to compel the NFL to reveal its knowledge of concussion-related health risks could have far more damaging consequences for the league than whether it will have to cover a pending $1 billion class action settlement to injured players”? Compare both of those sentences to the opening of article #2. As you do, here’s the million-dollar question from the public relations perspective: if someone only looked at the pictures, headline, and first sentence, what would they “know” about the case at hand and how to interpret the news?
Moral of the Story
As mentioned in the lesson, the often-subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences between style and content can have a major influence on what the public “knows” about any given topic. Thus, in public relations, while an individual stakeholder’s understanding of news that affects our organization might be limited, it is our responsibility to look at news coverage in concert (all together), to identify all of the ways our news is being reported. Only then can we respond effectively, which is the focus for our next lesson.
Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51-58.
Entman, R. M. (2004). Projections of power: framing news, public opinion, and U.S. foreign policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gitlin, T. (1980). The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Iyengar, S. (1991). Is anyone responsible? How television frames political issues. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. (pp. 1-16; 46-68).
McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36(2), 176-187.
Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9–20.
Weaver, D. H. (2007). Thoughts on Agenda Setting, Framing, and Priming. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 142–147.