U.S. Media's Failure to Set the Agenda for Covering Sex Trafficking

By Danielle Martinelli
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2012, Vol. 3 No. 2 | pg. 2/4 |

II. Changing Roles of the Mass Media in Setting Agendas

The agenda-setting theory was proposed by McCombs and Shaw in 1968 and since then has created a strong structure and basis for how the news generates awareness and operates (Takeshita 275). The well-established definition for agenda setting is "the phenomenon of the mass media selecting certain issues and portraying them frequently and prominently, which leads people to perceive those issues as more important than others" (Wu 776). The understanding that the news has this power also presents a responsibility for reporters to seek out and portray critical and unjust problems in society. The immense number of studies on the theory have shown the effects and responses of the public when the news is able to "set the agenda." Yet, the emergence of the Internet and newspapers going online, as well as clips of TV being found on the different websites, have started to weaken the power of reporters to set the national agenda.

Agenda setting should not be confused with "framing," which is concerned with how the news portrays an issue. Framing is not based on the issue itself, but more the applicability of the issue after it is reported (Scheufele 15). The distinction is important because the main issue of sex trafficking already has a particular perception, but the problem is the frequency of news media and so awareness of the issue.

Another aspect of this theory is called second-level agenda setting, which is based on the evolution of the agenda-setting theory in the past 30 years. Research in 2009 has proposed that the strength to set the agenda is driven not solely by the frequency but also feelings about the problem (Wu 777). This is strongly correlated with the addition of images to a story to convey the meaning. The study showed that the addition of personal video clips and pictures to create a story to produce a feeling or attitude has only partial correlation to whether the public thought the person in the visuals more prominent or important (781). When looking at international issues instead of politics, second-level agenda setting played more of a role on how the public thought either positively or negatively about a nation due to the media's report on it (Wanta 367). Though, the mere negative or positive portrayal of that country did not automatically determine the participants' view of that country. Both of these findings confirm that second-level could have the potential to convey importance about how people personally felt about the issue, but that the frequency of an issue is still more significant in raising the awareness of issues.

The agenda setting effect of print and broadcasting media outlets also differs. After looking at stories in the New York Times and on the national news channel, participants were asked to recall stories that they perceived as the most important. While stories on the news channel seemed to have more impact on what they thought were the most pressing matters in the world, it was the newspaper readers that had a better recall of the stories after a two-week time gap (Hu 233). Salience cues, like stories being displayed on the front page, also played a role in readers' remembering stories and in determining their importance when the readers were asked to recall the stories they read. The category of the top stories they remembered was international problems, followed by the economy. Newspapers had a more powerful influence on an individual's retaining the information of an issue, while broadcast stories had a more initial impact, but were more quickly forgotten (235). The issue of how often a story is repeated and which medium is chosen can have dramatic effects on the perceived importance of the story. This highlights the importance of salience cues.

Salience cues and selection are integral parts of the theory. Agenda setting is determined by which stories are selected by the news media; the salience cues tell the reader or viewer that which story is important. If a story is not printed on a newspaper or given adequate time on television, there are no ways to show that it is important to the general public (Wanta 365). Selection is, therefore, the first step, but cues like the headline displayed in bold, appearing on the front page, or being broadcast on different networks have proven to point the public to issues demanding attention (Conway 41).

A new factor that has disrupted the agenda setting theory slightly is the addition of the Internet, which has blunted salience cues. A study conducted with 15 college students watching a CNN news broadcast and visiting a CNN website confirmed the importance of TV news, but also revealed the fragmentation the Internet brought to the perception of news importance. The students ranked the importance of stories more consistently with each other after watching their broadcasts than when they ranked the top stories immensely differently after going online (Conway 43). The important stories on TV were determined by salience cues, but the stories that the participants chose online were decided based on their interest. The stories that were perceived as more exciting, like a car race, were remembered more easily by the participants, but they were ranked less important by both the online users and TV watchers (45). The two studies highlighted the inconsistencies in the agenda setting theory. Salience cues like length guided viewers to identify the most important stories on TV, but the absence of prompts online led readers to veer from the media's intended prominent stories.

With the increasing use of the Internet for seeking and gaining information, other studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of agenda setting. The theory may now suggest a loss of consensus on main issues among the general public. In one study, some participants read the online version of the New York Times and others read the print version for a total of one week, and then were asked to rank the most important stories. The online readers had broader responses to the question of what was important, as the online channel gave more choices on stories that the individual identifies with. Print readers chose the stories that in general had more cues, bigger headline, on the front page, etc., and were less varied in their responses (Althaus 179). It was reported that "online news sites encourage users to be highly selective in their consumption of news content . . . readers of printed newspapers are likely to be exposed to stories that they might not have been actively seeking, particularly if those stories appear on the front page. In contrast, online newspapers tend to organize the news into topical categories that draw readers immediately to those stories most likely to fit their information preferences" (182). This process of division and personal selection could lead to a public that is ill-informed and divided on issue importance (Takeshita 285). In the past, agenda setting was a tool that helped build consensus and build themes for the public.

The role of the media has helped bring together different demographics to form shared experiences, but with the increasing use of the Internet as a primary news source, the news is being tailored by the individual (Althaus 197). The Internet created an environment that enables people to connect with like-minded others around the world and "make the identification with special-interest agendas more likely. The disruption of broadly shared public agendas, which the traditional mass media have helped sustain, would likely maximize social cleavages" (Takeshita 286). Personalization has been implied as a positive development since the gatekeeping role of journalists might be dispelled and more accountability is demanded (Althaus 198). Journalists can no longer form the consensus, but are made to be experts in specific areas to find out the truth. This could mean the end of the media setting the agenda, but there are still reports that people will not completely shift to online news sources. Thus, the discussion of issues online is based on the amount of coverage they receive on TV. Research still has yet to be done on the influence that blogs have on the news and the topics that are chosen or discussed (Takeshita 289). The idea that everyone is a journalist removes the role of gatekeeping by the media, and also removes the hierarchal nature of bringing the nation together around one issue, since now every person can report on their personal agenda.

The final issue relevant to agenda setting is the actual type of story and the priming effect of a story. When the mass media try to set the agenda by reiterating it, there is a danger of desensitizing the public if the story is overplayed. When a group was instructed to watch crime stories during the news broadcast, researchers found participants were ambivalent to the violence, as present culture has amplified the occurrence of violence in order to entertain and captivate the audience. In the news, homicides took up 29% of the total broadcast time on average, but only accounted for 2% of all crimes in America (Young 1676). This sensationalistic style reflects the research that a story creating fear is perceived to be more important than otherwise.

There is another limitation that journalists must consider. Reversal theory by Apter has countered the sensationalistic type of reporting. He thinks there is a threshold point when the fearful stimuli become too personal and so threatening that people switch from "sensation-seeking" to "sensation-avoiding" (Young 1690). Sensational news keeps the viewers' attention, but there is a limit to its power. This was further supported by the finding of a study where participants were asked to watch both the local news about crime in their area and then national news about crime. The results were contrary to the original hypothesis that participants would fear more due to the amount and degree of crime in their area reported; instead personal connection to a crime was the main reason that fear was produced after viewing a crime on TV. The fear people felt did not correlate with the degree of importance participants placed on it (Gross 421). The agenda setting power is, therefore, not determined by the personal experiences of the viewers. The study showed that "there is no evidence however, that the news induces people to think or feel about those issues in a certain way. The news may make crime a salient topic for audiences, but it does not make them afraid" (423). Media portrayal and influence is not all-powerful: It helps to sway what topics receive attention but not how people feel about them; this takes personal action and experience.

Understanding the personal component of news was the subject of a study in 2010, which gives powerful insight into agenda setting. The study surveyed participants throughout the 2000 gun control controversy as three events were happening in the news: few violent gun shooting incidents, President Clinton's address, and a march on Washington for gun control. While the coverage continued for consecutive weeks, the importance of the issue for citizens dramatically increased. What created the most attention and awareness was the public demonstration, not President Clinton's speech or the shooting. The research showed that citizens thought that the gun law was important due to the response of the march against guns, which was several months after the shooting itself and made the issue "new" again (Smidt 82). The success of the march might be important because it was last in sequence and already supported by the credibility of prominent figures addressing the same issue (85). Combining a dramatic event, a political figure's address, and then a personal response, led the public to believe in the high importance of an issue and communicated the power of the agenda setting theory. This new research has shed light on the discrepancies and failures of the media to set the agenda about sex trafficking.

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