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Four (4) Reasons Why the Media Must Set Agenda for the Society

INTRO: The influence of the media on the perception of the people on public issues is empirically verifiable, and well-documented. As far back as 1922, Walter Lippman, a newspaper columnist was concerned that the media had the power to present images to the public. Little wonder why Bernard Cohen in 1963 observed that the press "may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” The empirical confirmation of the truism of the Lippman’s 1922 position came only in 1968 when during the Chapel Hill Study, published in Public Opinion QuarterlyMaxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw studied the 1968 American presidential election and demonstrated a strong correlation coefficient (r > .9) between what 100 residents of Chapel Hill, North Carolina thought was the most important election issue and what the local and national news media reported was the most important issue. That study promoted the agenda setting theory of mass communication. Although, affirming the effectiveness of the agenda setting function of the mass media, the agenda setting theory of Mass Communication argues that media agenda does not reflect the reality. This however does not mean that media agenda setting in the society is dysfunctional. The mass media agenda setting function is important due to the following reasons:

1/ Agenda-Setting Molds Public Opinion for Policy Process: The strong correlation between mass media priority issue and public opinion has been verified in the Chapel Hill study of 1968 by the duo of McCombs and Shaw. This is why it is not uncommon to hear people say something like, “it is true, I heard/read it in the news.” By nature, people are followers, and this is manifested as bandwagon. Armed with the rare capability of reaching large number of audience simultaneously, the mass media have been able to exploit the bandwagon tendency of people in molding public opinion. Given the strategic importance of public opinion in policy formulation and implementation, agenda setting function of the mass media therefore helps to chart the waters for policy formulators to the overall betterment of the society.   

2/ Agenda-Setting Helps in Maintenance of Law and Order: Media content disseminated to the society are sieved and filtered through the process of media gatekeeping, bearing in mind among other things the maintenance of law and order in the society. In this manner, the media trivialize volatile issues or fundamentally doctor the content for law and order.

3/ Agenda-Setting Helps in Promotion of Democracy: The media in its agenda setting function have promoted democracy with several fronts of propaganda. Thus, scholars seem to have reached a common consensus that recognizes mass media’s critical role in democratization (Hall & O’Neil, 1998; Hyden & Okigbo, 2002; Jakubowicz, 2002; Pasek, 2006). Agenda setting function of the media tells the populace about current events, educates the electorates for meaningful contribution on public issues, and inspires participation which is the hallmark of democracy.

4/  Agenda-Setting Helps in Policing against Abuses: Be it in the political power box or in the streets, the media eye-of-god surveillance polices abuses. The simple knowledge that the media are out there and very ready to make a mountain out of a mere hill of an abuse has served as a deterrence to political, social, economic and or religious abuses. Agenda setting function of the media may not truly reflect the reality but it has achieved a noble feat in getting popular attention against heinous crimes and abuses in the society.   

Hall, R. A., & O’Neil, P. H. (1998). Institutions, transitions, and the media: A comparison of Hungary and Romania. In P. O’Neil (Ed.), Communicating democracy: The media and political transitions (pp. 125–146). London, UK: Lynne Rienner.
Hyden, G., & Okigbo, C. (2002). The media and the two waves of democracy. In G. Hyden, M. Leslie, & F. F. Ogundimu (Eds.), Media and democracy in Africa (pp. 29–53). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction
Jakubowicz, K. (2002). Media in transition: The case of Poland. In M. E. Price, B. Rozumilowicz, & S. G. Verhulst (Eds.), Media reform: Democratizing the media, democratizing the state (pp. 203–231). New York, NY: Routledge.
Pasek, J. (2006, August). Fueling or following democracy? Analyzing the role of media liberalization in democratic transition. Paper presented at the American Political Science Association Conference, Philadelphia, August 30–September 3.