Agenda Setting and Online Media

Vishiwjeet Singh
(Senior Research Scholar, Punjabi University Patiala)
Ripudaman Singh
(Asst. Prof., Sri Guru Granth Sahib World University, Fatehgarh Sahib)

Abstract

In 1972, Max McCombs and Donald Shaw developed the agenda-setting theory to explain the way media influences and affects the perceptions of the public. That is if a news item is covered frequently and prominently the audience will regard the issue as more important. The theory was revolutionary and groundbreaking at that time, but it only applied to traditional media such as newspapers, television and radio broadcasts, and magazines. Now with the emergence of online media, the relevance of Agenda-Setting is being challenged. Agenda-Setting needs a given amount of time for the media agenda to be absorbed and accepted as the public agenda. But in an online community of instantaneous communication, this may not exist. Furthermore, there is a continual blurring of the line between media gatekeepers and media consumers in the unmediated online world; which is in contrast with the theory itself. All of these contentions weaken the ability of the media to propose and transfer a clear media agenda to the public. Based on the above statements, this paper will look at the relationship between the agenda-setting function of mass media and popular topics on the social media site, Twitter. This paper seeks to answer the following question: Do conversations on Twitter represent the agenda set for the by mainstream media sources?

Introduction

In 1972, the agenda-setting theory of Max McCombs and Donald Shaw explained the way media influences and affects public perceptions. That is to say, the public will regard a frequently and prominently covered news item as more important than others. The Agenda-Setting theory holds that the agenda set by the media, the items deemed important by the media, is identical to the public agenda, or what the public deems important. The theory was revolutionary and groundbreaking at that time, but it only applied to traditional media such as newspapers, television & radio broadcasts, and magazines.

Now with the emergence of online media, the relevance of Agenda-Setting is being challenged. As the media becomes personalized, the agenda is diluted or is not uniform. However, there are other aspects of Agenda-Setting that are also called into question by the realm of online media. Components that one would deem necessary for issue salience may or may not exist in the online realm. Furthermore, online media is fragmented because of the plethora of sources available to anyone who seeks information. Agenda-Setting needs a given amount of time for the media agenda to be absorbed and accepted as the public agenda. But in an online community of instantaneous communication, this may not exist. The audience is also beginning to be viewed differently in relation to how people are persuaded as members of a group, taking into account a lessened degree of homogeneity. Also, the audience is no longer viewed only as passive consumers, which raises important issues relevant to Agenda-Setting.

Furthermore, there is a continual blurring of the line between media gatekeepers and media consumers in the unmediated online world, which calls into question the concept of agenda-setting. There must be a distinct line between gatekeepers and consumers for it to apply, as stated by the Agenda-Setting theory itself. All of these contentions weaken the ability of the media to propose and transfer a clear media agenda to the public. Based on the above statements, this paper will look at the relationship between the agenda-setting function of mass media and popular topics on the social media site Twitter. The site is a microblogging website, with users knows as ‘Tweeters’ posting a message to their followers using 140 characters or less.

The site uses “trending topics” as a way to start conversations among its users. The most popular and frequently tweeted phrases are archived so that users can see what conversations and information are being shared in the virtual world. Twitter describes   its trending topics thus:

“Twitter’s trending topics algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help people discover the “most breaking” news stories from across the world.”

The researchers chose Twitter as the comparative social media site due to its easy to use the search feature and the openness of the site. Unlike sites like Facebook, the information is organized so that users can highlight key phrases and words and search to see how other users have used the words and phrases in their tweets. More so, Twitter trending topics can be country-specific unlike other social sites and online platforms that show popular trending topics from around the globe. For the study, researchers chose the topics which were India centric.

The researchers performed a seven-day content analysis of the national news headlines of two leading national dailies of the country (Hindustan Times and Times of India) and two leading national English news channel (Times Now and NDTV 24×7) and compared their headlines to trending topics on Twitter to see how the social media site responds to the agenda set forth by the mainstream news channels and newspapers. This paper seeks to answer the following question: Do conversations existing on Twitter represent the agenda set forth by mainstream media sources?

Significance of the study

The researchers feel that it is imperative to conduct a study in this field because of the strong relationship between agenda-setting and public opinion. Policy and opinion makers should know whether the agenda set forth by the mainstream media permeates social media or not. If Twitter follows the gatekeeping function of mainstream media, it can be assumed that the site has an influence on what the public thinks about. The site could be seen as a mediator, meaning they take the message from the mainstream media, intercept it, and share it with a broader public. Also, if the trending topics on twitter are indicative of the major news stories, then Twitter can be used as a way to measure public opinion on the topics.

Review of literature

The principal outlines of this influence were sketched by Walter Lippmann in his 1922 classic, Public Opinion, which began with a chapter titled “The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads.” As he noted, the news media are a primary source of those pictures in our heads about the larger world of public affairs, a world that for most citizens is “out of reach, out of sight, out of mind.” What we know about the world is largely based on what the media decide to tell us. More specifically, the result of this mediated view of the world is that the priorities of the media strongly influence the priorities of the public. Elements prominent on the media agenda become prominent in the public mind.

“The Agenda-Setting Role of the Mass Media in the Shaping of Public Opinion” (Maxwell McCombs, 1972) opined that the pictures in people’s minds about the outside world are significantly influenced by the mass media, both what those pictures are about and what those pictures are. The agenda-setting effects of the mass media also have significant implications beyond the pictures created in people’s heads. In the original, traditional domain of agenda-setting, the salience of public issues, there is considerable evidence that the shifting salience of issues on the media agenda often is the basis for public opinion about the overall performance in the office of a public leader. In turn, the salience of a leader in the news also is linked with whether an individual holds any opinion at all. At the second level of agenda-setting, the salience of affective attributes intertwined with the public’s cognitive pictures of these leaders represents the convergence of attribute agenda-setting with opinion formation and change. Beyond attitudes and opinions, the pictures of reality created by the mass media have implications for personal behaviors, ranging from college applications to voting on Election Day.

More recently, McCombs and colleagues predicted at least another 30 years of “fruitful exploration” for agenda-setting in cyberspace (Coleman et al., 2009). Recent studies show mixed support for traditional media agenda setting on social media. An examination of more than 100,000 Twitter postings (tweets) concluded that news outlets “…influence large amounts of followers to republish their content to other users” (Leavitt, Burchard, Fisher, & Gilbert, 2009). To determine influence, the researchers tracked the spread of content on Twitter rather than simply comparing the number of individuals following the news outlets, celebrities, and analysts studied.

The rapid growth of social media is attracting researchers’ attention to a variety of disciplines (Tumasjan, Sprenger, Sandner, & Welpe, 2010). And in the realm of communication scholarship, the agenda-setting function of traditional news outlets is being called into question (Sayre, Bode, Shah, Wilcox, and Shah, 2010). Agenda setting developed as a theoretical perspective throughout a period that spans nearly four decades, following the seminal Chapel Hill study which found a strong relationship between the major issues on the agendas of the press and the public (McCombs & Shaw, 1972, Rogers & Dearing, 2007).

Among the most frequently used theories in mass communications research (Bryant & Miron, 2004), agenda-setting was born during an era of print and broadcast media–before cable television increased the number of channels coming into our homes, before satellites provided a 24-hour news cycle, and before the Internet gave us global information access. With these changes and the continuing evolution of digital media, scholars have begun to explore the role of digital media in the agenda-setting process. In recent years, one of the theory’s founders identified the Internet as the “new frontier” for agenda-setting research. But McCombs (2004) has also countered speculation that widely available alternate media sources could weaken the influence of mainstream media on the public agenda, fragment interests, and lead to a multitude of media and personal agendas. Instead, he envisions a “relatively homogenous media agenda” led by traditional media and large conglomerates which would continue to influence the public agenda (McCombs, 2004). Users, he maintains, would rely on a small number of sites, constrained by time limitations and the effort needed to access multiple sources of information (McCombs, 2004).

A comparison of CNN Headline News and trending topics on Twitter found episodes of the news breaking first on Twitter, with CNN maintaining its lead in reporting first more than half the time (Kwak, Lee, Park, & Moon, 2010). Three-fourths of news consumers online say they receive news through e-mail or social networking sites, and more than half use those means to share links to news (Purcell, Rainie, Mitchell, Rosenstiel, & Olmstead, 2010).

Objectives

  • To examine the relevance of agenda-setting theory in online media with respect to mainstream media.
  • To compare the issues discussed in online and mainstream media.
  • Hypotheses
  • With respect to mainstream media, the agenda-setting theory is relevant in online media.
  • Issues discussed in online media differ from that of mainstream media.

Research methodology

Research Design: The study is descriptive in nature. The paper aims to study the relation between trending topics on Twitter and leading stories on news channels and newspapers.

Method: A seven-day content analysis was conducted for this study.

Universe: The data was collected by studying the trending topics on Twitter on an hourly basis. The prime time stories from both news channels (Times Now and NDTV 24×7) and news stories from both newspapers (Hindustan Times and Times of India) were recorded.

Unit of Analysis: For this study, individual news stories and trending topics have been considered as a single unit of analysis.

Data Presentation and Tabulation

23/08/2015

Twitter Topics

·         Pro Kabaddi League final

·         Kumara Sangakkara

·         Usain Bolt

·         Anti-national Congress

·         Failed Modi Sarkar

·         Diego Costa

·         Piku

·         Varun On Looks Who’s Talking

·         Salman on Jhlaka Dikhlajaa

·         Karun Nair

·         Himanta Biswa Sharma

·         Ashes

·         Ramdev

TV Channel

·         Impact of Arab Crisis on India( Times Now)

·         Save Our Tigers (NDTV 24×7)

·         Uphaar Theater Tragedy (Times Now)

·         A report about an alcoholic Delhi constable  (NDTV 24×7)

·         India V/s Srilanka test match (Times Now)

·         One Rank One Pension (NDTV 24×7)

·         IAAF news (Times Now)

·         Ashes test match (NDTV 24×7)

Newspaper

·         Indo- Pak Peace Process Stalled (HT)

·         Cong is Anti Farmer -Smriti Irani (HT)

·         Nitish Launches 19,500 crore scheme in Bihar (HT)

·         Militants Killed in Kupwara (HT)

·         Bolt Wins 100 meter at IAAF( HT)

·         OROP (TOI)

·         Kumbh Mela in Nashik (TOI)

·         UK Reopens Iran Embassy (TOI)

·         India Sri Lanka test match

·         Ashes

24/08/2015

Twitter Topics

·         Start-up problem

·         Sensex

·         Aamir Khan

·         Puli- The movie

·         Dow Jones

·         Jasleen Kaur

·         PAK NSA  Sartaj Aziz

·         Col Pushpendra Singh (OROP)

·         Wall Street

·         Economy in ICU

·         Black Monday

·         Fight Back India (Times now trend)

·         Benzema (Football player)

·         Made in China

TV Channel

·         OROP (NDTV 24×7)

·         Potholes nuance (Times Now)

·         Sensex Crash (NDTV 24×7)

·         Fight Against Eve Teasing (Times Now)

·         Fight Back India against Eve-teasing (Times Now)

·         Phantom film ban by Pakistan (NDTV 24×7)

·         Rahul Gandhi v/s Smriti Irani: Land grab deal (Times now)

·         Santhara Controversy (NDTV 24×7)

Newspaper

·         Stock Market crash (HT and TOI)

·         OROP (TOI, HT)

·         India Pak NSA talks (HT)

·         Onion prices (HT)

·         Nepal violence

·         IS Blows Temple at Palmyra  (HT, TOI))

·         UN Tribunal Order- Stop Trials of Marine (TOI)

·         China Day Celebrations (TOI)

25/08/2015

Twitter Topics

·         Charcha on reservation (Hardik Patel)

·         Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo

·         Shatrughan Sinha

·         We Love Alia Bhatt

·         Census 2011 (caste census)

·         For a Sister (Rakhsha Bandhan)

·         Jammu and Kashmir (Govt crisis)

·         Five Months Without Zayn (one direction)

·         Aishwarya Rai Bachan (new movie Jazba)

·         Inhuman Pak (human rights violation)

·         Sarabjeet (Jasleen controversy)

·         OROP Debate

·         Indrani

·         Ask Anupam

·         Miss Malini Trivia Tuesday

TV Channel

·         OROP (Times Now)

·         Hardik Patel and Reservation (NDTV 24×7)

·         OROP (NDTV 24×7)

·         OROP (Times Now)

·         Rahul Gandhi’s Balakote Visit (Times Now)

·         Indrani Mukherjea, Sheena Bora Murder Case (Times Now)

Newspaper

·         Caste Census (HT, TOI)

·         Indo Pak NSA Talks (HT, TOI)

·         J&K Government Crisis (HT)

·         Patel Agitation, Hardik Patel (HT, TOI)

·         OROP (TOI)

·         Indrani Case (TOI)

·         China and the Global Crisis (TOI)

·         Dip in Oil Prices (TOI)

26/08/2015

Twitter Topics

·         Play the Life Game (Lakme fashion week)

·         GSAT 6

·         Experiments with Chai (Random)

·         Khel Ratna (Sania v/s Girisha)

·         Patel Community Agitation

·         Rakesh Maria (Mumbai Commissioner)

·         Jatigat reservation Bandh Karo

·         Sheena

·         Power Couple (Reality show)

·         Virginia (Journalist Shot in America)

·         BJP Destroyed Gujarat

·         Rajiv Gandhi Trust

·         Sanjay Dutt

·         Club Brugge (Football)

·         8000 ODI runs (AB De Villiers)

TV Channel

·         Indrani Mukherjea, Sheena Bora Murder case (Times Now)

·         Indrani Mukherjea, Sheena Bora Murder case (NDTV 24×7)

·         NSA Standoff IND v/s PAK (NDTV 24×7)

·         Rajiv Gandhi Trust controversy (Times Now)

·         Caste Census (NDTV 24×7)

Newspaper

·         Indrani Mukherjea case (TOI, HT)

·         Patel Agitation (HT, TOI)

·         OROP (HT, TOI)

·         Caste Census (HT, TOI)

·         Fall in Sensex (HT, TOI)

·         Indo Pak Talks (TOI)

·         GSAT 6 Launch

27/08/2015

Twitter Topics

·         All-New Hike

·         GSAT 6

·         Close up first move the party

·         Smart city

·         Another Pakistani Terrorist caught

·         Bolt

·         National Burger Day

·         Ravi Shastri

·         Smelly Cat (Friend’s reference)

·         50 Days of Historic Bahubali

·         RSS-BJP

·         MSG 2 Trailer Launch

·         Bayern Munich (football club)

·         Arnab Speaks to Peter (Times Now trend)

·         Lionel Messi

·         UEFA Best Player

·         Barcelona (football club)

TV Channel

·         Indrani Mukherjea, Sheena Bora Murder case (Times Now)

·         GSAT 6 Launch (NDTV 24×7)

·         Indrani Mukherjea, Sheena Bora Murder case (NDTV 24×7)

Newspaper

·         Indrani Case (HT, TOI)

·         Pak Militant Captured in J&K(HT, TOI)

·         GSAT 6 Launch (HT, TOI)

·         OROP (HT, TOI)

·         Pak’s Nuke Profile (HT, TOI)

·         One Year of Jan Dhan Yojana ( HT)

·         Patel Agitation (TOI)

·         Call Drops Debate (TOI)

·         Santhara Controversy (TOI)

·         Bolt wins 200m (TOI)

28/08/2015

Twitter Topics

·         Aircel Blog Up

·         A World Without Sisters

·         Aurangzeb

·         Natkhat Moments

·         Happy Weekends

·         Dear Siblings

·         Sachin Pilot (Ambulance Scam)

·         Virsanghvi (Sheena Bora Case)

·         Indian High Commissioner

·         Abdul Kalam Azad Road

·         Daaru Zaroori Hai

·         Drive safe

·         Mughal

·         Sheena Truth Out (Times Now Trend)

·         Akbar

·         Happy Birthday Liam (one direction singer)

·         Dara Shikoh

TV Channel

·         Indrani Mukherjea, Sheena Bora Murder case
(Times Now)

·         Labour Law Reforms Debate ( NDTV 24×7)

·         Indrani Mukherjea, Sheena Bora Murder case (NDTV 24×7)

·         Phantom Movie (NDTV 24×7)

·         1965 War Anniversary (NDTV 24×7)

·         Debate on Naming of the road (NDTV 24×7)

Newspaper

·         Indrani case (HT, TOI)

·         Congress May Make Changes in Punjab (HT)

·         Smart Cities  (HT)

·         Indo Pak 1965 War Anniversary  (TOI)

·         OROP (TOI)

·         Law Commission Suggests Stop Death Penalty (TOI)

·         AAP Crisis

29/08/2015

Twitter Topics

·         Varun Says (Varun Dhawan)

·         Khel Ratna  (Sania Mirza)

·         Aam Aadmi Party (Suspended MPs)

·         2 AAP MPs suspended

·         West Ham (Football Club)

·         Ask Pari (Parineeti Chopra)

·         Real Juice Quality

·         Hazard (Football Player)

TV Channel

·         Indrani Mukherjea, Sheena Bora Murder case (Times Now)

·         Indrani Mukherjea, Sheena Bora Murder case (NDTV 24×7)

·         1965 War Anniversary (NDTV 24×7)

Newspaper

·         AAP suspends 2 MP’s (HT, TOI)

·         J&K camp blast  (HT)

·         Bihar polls (TOI, HT)

·         1965 war, 50 years (TOI, HT)

·         China and global crisis (HT, TOI)

·         Indrani case (TOI)

·         OROP (HT, TOI)

In the above table, the topics marked bold were discussed across all three platforms. That is Twitter, News channels (NDTV 24×7 and Times Now), and newspapers (Hindustan Times and Times of India). Topics that have been underlined were discussed at least on one platform other than Twitter.

Findings

  1. Most news stories from August 23, 2015, to August 29, 2015, sought to shape public opinion regarding One Rank One Pension (OROP), the global economic crisis, Hardik Patel, and the Patel agitation in Gujarat, and most importantly the Sheena Bora murder case. Out of these news stories, the Sheena Bora Murder case hogged maximum limelight on prime time television, it only came up as the trending topic on Twitter when it was discussed on Times Now show “Super Prime Time with Arnab Goswami”
  2. The other top stories of the week and contentious issues like OROP and Patel agitation hardly found any takers on Twitter, with the issues trending only a couple of times on Twitter while they were widely discussed and written about in the mainstream media.
  3. Trending topics from the period under study did not correlate with the news stories discussed in mainstream media. Trending topics varied from popular culture themes like films, rock bands, daily soaps, sports, and random topics like Rakhsha Bandhan and National Burger Day. It is worth mentioning here that out of ten trending topics at any given time on Twitter, popular culture appeared as a dominant theme, and stories related to current events appeared scarcely.
  4. During the course of the study, the researches came across various important news stories that were widely covered in either of the two mainstream media i.e. newspapers and television but little of no discussions on those topics were done on Twitter. The NSA level talks and the standoff between India and Pakistan, which remains a topic of hot discussion on both news channels and in newspapers, appeared only once as a trending topic and that too very briefly on 24th August 2015. Another example being the GSAT 6 launch by India, although a big story, hardly stirred any discussion in the online sphere. Nepal Crisis, Santhara Controversy, 1965 War Anniversary, and Caste Census are some more examples of how the Twitter community was not in sync with the agenda set forth by the mainstream media.
  5. A major finding which the researchers would like to bring forth is that Twitter by and large remained a platform to discuss stories that the users felt were important to them or to which they could relate. The fact that Twitter has no gatekeeper unlike the mainstream media, allows the users to decide what they want to discuss, how they want to discuss, and for how long they want to discuss a particular issue. The fact that the users on Twitter gave more importance to European football players, sport and entertainment news tells a lot about how the agenda set by the main stream media didn’t permeate as per the principles of Agenda Setting Theory.

Conclusion

Before starting the research study, the researchers had hypothesized that agenda-setting theory is relevant in the online sphere, and based on the above findings the researchers can conclude that the theory in its present form stands partially relevant in the online sphere. Findings have shown that although the users on Twitter discussed at length about some of the agendas set by the mainstream media, for example in the case of Sheena Bora Murder case, OROP, Patel Agitation, and the Global economic crisis, they also missed on some important issues like Caste Census and India Pakistan NSA talks. It won’t be wrong to say that although on some issues the agenda set by the mainstream media did overlap the discussion on Twitter, by and large Twitter is still being used mainly as a place to follow celebrity gossip and popular culture, more so than the world events and news. Twitter’s ability to set the agenda is not as strong as traditional news media and mainstream news media should understand that the most popular conversations existing on Twitter are not relating to the agenda that they are trying set.

References

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  • McCombs (2014). Setting the Agenda. Polity Press.
  • Purcell, K., Rainie, L., Mitchell, A., Rosenstiel, T., & Olmstead, K. (2010). Understanding the participatory news consumer: Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Online-News.aspx?r=1.
  • Sayre, Ben; Leticia Bode; Dhavan Shah; Dave Wilcox; and Chirag Shah (2010) “Agenda Setting in a Digital Age: Tracking Attention to California Proposition 8 in Social Media, Online News, and Conventional News,” Policy &Internet: Vol. 2: Iss. 2, Article 2.
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