The choice of topics affects our thinking

”It [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” (Bernard Cohen, 1963).

It is rare for the media – if and when it covers the news neutrally and objectively – to be able directly to alter the opinion of people, even though it continuously influences what people are thinking about.

Agenda setting theory is a theory of influence which, in its simple form, states that media sustains themes or agendas that bind the audience’s interest. The media, according to the theory, uses societal power by bringing items to the public agenda.

One important concept related to this is coverage, the public space granted to a party by the media. An example of coverage would be an interview with an influential figure, writing a review on a restaurant or an art exhibition, or writing an article about a cause driven by a certain political party. Coverage can either be negative or positive in tone, but still be influential in making the audiences aware of something or someone. This phenomenon is strongly affected by the news values presented in the previous chapter. These values are somewhat the same in different media enterprises and even from country to country.

In addition, however, even though media in principle strive for impartiality, editorial offices also have their own agendas that influence what is highlighted in the mass media.

Firstly, there are a great many media outlets that are specialised in something, say health issues, hobbies or foreign politics.

Secondly behind every media there is an individual, usually the editor-in-chief, who has their own personal stance on societal issues.

Thirdly, editorial office managers can have their own interests, or interests related to their position.

Fourthly, reporting on a touchy issue may result in masses of feedback from the readers in general or a specific advocacy groups, and sometimes avoiding this kind of “trouble” may result in reluctance to cover certain topics.

Fifthly, often the policy of the media is influenced by the political or financial goals of its owners. Clear examples of this are some state-owned media companies or party-led magazines and newspapers. A medium that sells advertising space often thinks twice before criticising the actions of its customer companies or any parties closely related to them. This is problematic for the principles of freedom of speech and impartiality.


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This article was updated on January 9th 2020.