Not having a reason to wake up with the rest of the world, I have found there are too many times during the day that I realize that I have, in fact, nothing to do. Sometimes to fill that gap, I practice my guitar skills with the hopes of one day achieving my dream of playing at (or in front of) Madison Square Garden. Sometimes I read (sometimes the same books over and over again). Recently, I went through my old graduate school papers and one of them led me to think about how much media has changed in the past 5 years. And not just the voracious speed at which we get our news updates, or the vociferous cacophony of social media. Instead, I started to reach deep into the tendrils of my brain about how to connect older theories of mass communication to newer applications. The best part of this, for me at least, is that when I started my, ahem, career, I was a fledgling academic teaching mass media theory at a couple universities in New Jersey. Now, after being in the field (public relations, for those that don’t know what the field is) and able to apply my theoretical know-how, I can see a bigger picture. This path has led to this: mass media theories are antiquated and need to be updated. Why?
Before we answer that question, lets look at what my favorite mass-media theory says.
McCombs and Shaw’s Agenda Setting Theory is a theory stating that the media have a large influence on audiences by their decision of what news stories are considered newsworthy and how “much prominence and space to give them, that the mass media set the agenda for public opinion by highlighting certain issues.” In other words, media doesn’t tell us what to think, but tells us what to think about. One of the dirty little secrets of the communications discipline is that we’re not very creative people. The names of our theories are pretty self-explanatory, once you think about them. So, knowing this, the Agenda-setting theory is simply put; the media sets our (the public’s) agendas.
This is one of the reasons why liberals hate Fox News and why conservatives hate the New York Times; both parties see each media outlet as representative of setting their philosophical agenda to the public. But what people forget in this argument is that media feed off each other and the issues remain the same; the difference between organizations is just where on the philosophical scale they happen to subscribe to. For example, let’s look at Sarah Palin. While one outlet may say it’s wasteful that she bought $150,000 worth of clothes for this campaign and another says that it’s acceptable because if it was a man, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, from the Agenda Setting perspective, the media and now public are discussing her wardrobe and not her issues to be the second in command. The media has once again set the public agenda. Think back to any given period of time and see what was the ‘talk of the day’. That will give you a good idea of the influence of the media.
So why does this theory need to be updated? First off, since you are reading this, you must be aware of social media. To me, the best definition of social media is the elimination of the top-down, one-way dictum. There is a collaborative (yet competitive) conversation going on between media (yes, even the Media Elite, which I’m still trying to figure out who they are) and the public. Mainstream media is slowly adapting to these changing times, but most importantly, the discourse can now be started by “Joe The Plumber” and not necessarily from “Morning Joe”. Ever watch Wolf Blitzer or Rick Sanchez on CNN? They constantly use viewers’ comments from Twitter, Facebook and blogs to add color to stories or even to break stories.
This is an important step in updating an old theory. If “agenda-setting is believed to occur because the press must be selective in reporting the news”, then this is clearly no longer an imperative. With User-Generated Content, there is no such thing as selectivity. If there is no such thing as selectivity, then the power and influence of the media declines. What happens if there is too much selection? Well, one thing is to call it information overload. Another way to say what will happen comes from not too much selection, but user selection. No longer do I have to watch the evening news to see top stories (or any stories, for that matter) as I can go on the Web. But there is so much information out there. What to do?
The second reason why agenda setting needs to be updated is the rise of personalization. Forget the old media model that dictated what news was, as well as when and how you would consume it. New personalization technologies facilitate an entirely customized media experience for every individual—and both consumers and producers are fighting for the upper hand in use of this technology. There is far too much information for anyone to sift through to get to the news they need. In a world of information overload a premium will be placed on personalization that filters information.
Creating this filter is a double-edged sword because two things happen: 1) A gateway is created to actively gather and feed “pre-authorized” information in, and 2) a wall keeps out all information that does not match the individual’s pre-set parameters. The effect is that you’ll get a much higher volume of relevant information about topics you’re interested in than ever before. At the same time, it will be much harder for information not specified an interest in to reach you—regardless of the actual value and relevance. Agenda setting theory cannot begin to comprehend the simple fact that the public will not only have a choice in what news they get, but how to filter specific items. Of course,both audience and media fragmentation hasn’t helped agenda setting theory. I mean, there are more than 3 networks now to give us information.
The last reason for updating the Agenda Setting Theory has nothing to do with media, per se, but from the world of Public Relations. I have spent the better part of a year pitching media about small clients trying to be heard in the sea of noise created by the above. The role of PR has changed dramatically since 1968 (the year this theory was noticed) where practitioners have a more active role. We spend most of our day trying to influence reporters to cover our clients, who in turn, will write a glowing article about them and influence share holders and other targeted audiences. There’s a reason why PR executives are on calls and at meetings between clients and reporters: because a bad, strange, offensive comment out of a CEOs mouth could lose a company millions of dollars…which then leads to loss of jobs, and next thing you know, the economy is spinning clockwise down the toilet. (or counterclockwise if you are in the Southern Hemisphere). PR reps are more influential than most realize and reporters hate us because we stand in their way of a good story. Agenda Setting Theory needs to recognize, in an age when newsrooms are shrinking and reporters are stretched extremely thin in terms of roles and responsibilities, how PR can help save the world, one press release at a time. Or if it doesn’t feel like being so cute, how PR is really a catalyst in the changing Agenda.
Finally (for now), Agenda Setting Theory tells us a lot about ourselves and what we believe in. I think the theory can still be valid, but needs to take into account this new world order we live in. Would love to hear your thoughts!