Agenda building

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Agenda building describes the ongoing process by which various groups attempt to transfer their interests to be the interests of public policymakers.[1] Conceptualized as a political science theory by Cobb and Elder in 1971,[2] "the agenda-building perspective...alerts us to the importance of the environing social processes in determining what occurs at the decision-making stage and what types of policy outcomes will be produced.” It focuses on the relationship between society and policy maker.[3]

Classic democratic theory focused on the assumption that calls on “public policymakers to advance the interests of civically engaged constituents, by an autonomous press[4]” (i.e. classic theory focuses on the policy makers and media) however, it failed to account for points at which larger society of stakeholders could define the range of alternatives available for policy making.[2]

Key Assumptions[edit]

Agenda building rests on two primary assumptions (Cobb & Elder):

"Firstly, the attention capabilities of government are necessarily limited. There are always more matters vying for attention than can be actively considered. Secondly, policy problems are not a priori givens but rather are matters of definition. Whether a particular situation or set of circumstances constitutes a problem and is an appropriate matter of "public" concern depends upon not just facts but upon beliefs and values.[5]"

Other assumptions include, but are not limited to:

  • Process, not product: Agenda status is frequently fluid, and the status of an issue is developed through an elaborate competition between groups and how they jockey for control the range of issues acceptable for the agenda, either by attempting to force issues onto the agenda or to repel them, and to define and redefine how the issue is portrayed.[1]
  • Competition for attention. Competing actors/groups actively promote an issue or attributes of the issue that favor their interests to obtain the attention of a decision maker.[1] Policy makers can only address what they know and care about. But “signals” from the media, constituents, special interests, etc. come into play, and attempt to alert and inform the policy maker[6]
  • Mutual influence between actors. The influence between actors (press, general public, issue publics, interest groups, elites, decision makers) does not flow in one direction, rather, it's a web of overlapping mutual influences.[2]
  • Different agendas: There are two kinds of agendas: institutional (policy dockets) and systemic (that which merits the attention of the public). More discrepancy between agendas means more societal conflict, as the space between what is important to the public widens between what is being addressed by policymakers.[2]
  • Bias in the sphere of influence. Some groups and individuals have more power to build the agenda. Bias exists because of differences in skills, access, education, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, etc.[2] Elites, for example, generally have more power to influence the agenda.
  • Issues typically stem from small groups. If the group wants to challenge the status quo, it behooves them to expand the issue to the public, or keep it out of the public to avoid attention from the opposition.[1]
  • Issue characteristics. Different issues have different characteristics that impact its place on the agenda, for example, issues that have previously been established enter the agenda with less resistance.[4]

Key Hypotheses[edit]

Scholars applying the agenda-building approach to research questions frequently identify the sources of the agenda building and the compare the resulting discourse to the sender's message, whether it is media coverage or policy. For example, Nisbet, Brossard, & Kroepsch,[7] tracked media coverage; results showed that the George W. Bush administration was successful in driving coverage of the stem cell research controversy.

Major Stages[edit]

Cobb, Ross & Ross proposed four primary steps in agenda building:[1]

  1. Initiation, the issue or controversy must be articulated in some terms.
  2. Specification, a stakeholder group makes specific demands (e.g. policy).
  3. Expansion, stakeholder groups seek to gain the attention of decision makers and to define the issue in terms favorable to the group.
  4. Entrance, when the issue enters the formal agenda of the decision makers.

Compared to Agenda Setting[edit]

Agenda building, a concept found both in political science and communication scholarship, is distinct from, yet related to, agenda setting. However, the terms are frequently ill-defined: Berkowitz suggests, for example, applying the term agenda setting to situations regarding the effect of the media on the public and applying policy agenda building to situations that regard the perceptions of policymakers and how these perceptions are formed.[3]

Types of Agendas[edit]

Scholars generally agree on the basic principles of agenda building, but as also noted above, the terminology is not agreed upon. Denham proposes a direction-specific typology to studying agenda building, and he uses the terms 1) policy agenda building, 2) media agenda-building, 3) public agenda building, and 4) intermedia agenda building.[4] In all types, media is a key player.

  1. Policy agenda building (group -> media -> policy). Direct lobbying of policymakers certainly occurs, however, groups often marshal the power of the media to mobilize a larger public and force issues onto the public agenda. For example, pro-life groups presented President George W. Bush with an agenda that included a ban on fetal stem cell research; media attention spiked as the struggle between competing groups (pro-life and pro-research) played out in the media.[7] Greenpeace and a coalition of farming groups stopped trials of a genetically modified eggplant in the Philippines, however, pro-trial groups are active as well: Filipino newspapers have published stories featuring farmers calling for the technology to be commercialized and biology students calling for the ban to be overturned[8]
  2. Media agenda building (constraints -> media-> policy) Many forces shape the media agenda; for example, journalistic routines (e.g. journalists rely on certain sources, often repeatedly), the need to produce daily content, organizational culture, fiscal constraints, etc. Perhaps particularly due to the increased constraints on journalistic practices, scholars of agenda building have paid particular attention to the public relations aspects of agenda building; concerted efforts on the part of public relations functions can impact news coverage, which can impact policy. For example, Berkowitz.[9] tracked local and national TV and newspaper coverage, finding that more than 70% of TV news featured information found in press releases and from official sources. Public relations efforts by then-presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain were key determinants of media coverage abroad[10]
  3. Public agenda setting (media -> public -> policy). When the media alerts the public to an issue (frequently through investigative reporting). Lang and Lang[11] traced the power of the Washington Post Watergate investigation that led to President Nixon’s resignation; various media covered the issue, and soon the scandal was a daily headline, alarming the public into action.
  4. Intermedia agenda building (media-> media-> public and/or policymaker). Media outlets look to each other for cues regarding what to cover. For example, The New York Times influences other media outlets.

Missing from Denhams’s typology is an account of how policymakers directly use media to build their own agendas (policymaker -> media -> public). Political actors need journalists to spread their message just as much as journalists need stories to write.[12] Cook calls this “the negotiation of newsworthiness;” together journalists and sources (and occasionally others) interact to determine what is covered in the press, and how that content is presented.[13] Policymakers hold a particular structural advantage in promoting their interests, particularly because they are reliable sources of news.[14]

The Future: Agenda Building in the Digital Age[edit]

Regardless of agenda-building type, modern scholarship is beginning to expand the scope of what is considered media, and how the expanded universe of media will impact agenda building. Popular interactive platforms such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter have become the conduit for the large-scale public interaction. The increased role of citizens signals a new direction for agenda-building research, given that the Internet has distributed the means of information production and fragmented the information environment, marking a shift in the power from legacy media to build monolithic agendas to anyone with the ability to get online.[15]

Several studies show that agenda building effects occur in the digital age. YouTube influenced coverage of California’s Proposition 8, and, possibly, impacted the referendum.[16] Parmalee focused on agenda-setting and Twitter by interviewing journalists; he found that Twitter is a regular part of their routine.[17] Wallsten compared media coverage and blog discussion; results showed that journalists concerns matched blogger concerns.[18] Jacobson found that comments on Rachel Maddow's Facebook page influenced the broadcast.[19] In the scientific context, Runge, Brossard, Scheufele, & Xenos[20] found that social media played a key role in defining the "pink slime" issue, and the industry had to defend what they normally call “lean finely textured beef.”

There is also anecdotal evidence of digital agenda building:

  • One of the first examples of digital agenda-building concerns the resignation of Trent Lott. In 2002, Lott resigned Senate majority leader due to racist comments that he made at Strom Thurmond's birthday party. Bloggers took up the issue, forced the mainstream media to do so, which eventually forced Lott to resign.[21]
  • Mitt Romney’s “47%”. Scout Pouty, a bartender, posted a video on YouTube that showed Romney dismissing “47% of Americans” who he alleged were over relying on the government.[22] It was picked up by smaller news organizations, but later, mainstream media covered the story, and while Romney’s comments may have been taken out of context, they nonetheless damaged the campaign.
  • Michele Landis Dauber, an attorney present at the sentencing of Brock Turner, facilitated the sharing of the victim’s impact statement with Buzzfeed, which eventually led to wide coverage in the mainstream media and the attention of prominent political figures.[23] The judge in the case, Aaron Persky,is facing recall and now presides over civil, rather than criminal, cases.[24]

The algorithm as agenda-builder[edit]

Scholars are now starting to address what agenda building means, and what impact it has, when both machines and human beings set the agenda. Algorithms, such as the ranking algorithms in use at Facebook, apply previous online behavior to predict future interests to serve personalized content; the underlying, unseen algorithm manifests itself in the form of what information is presented to the viewer.[25] The impact of algorithmic editorial decision-making, particularly at Facebook, is immense: “...the results of [the] automated linking process shape the social lives and reading habits of more than 1 billion daily active users - one-fifth of the world’s adult can be tweaked to make us happy or sad; it can expose us to new and challenging ideas or insulate us in ideological bubbles.[26]" Facebook downplays its role as publisher, but given that Facebook has become a major distributor of news, that platforms such as Facebook are “just the pipes” is an increasingly untenable stance to take.[27]


Algorithmic determinism of news has not been without controversy. For example, Facebook recently came under fire for censoring the “Napalm girl” photo of Phan Thị Kim Phuc (they blamed the algorithm),[28] it conducted an emotional contagion experiment on users without their knowledge,[25] and it has been accused of liberal bias[29]


  1. ^ a b c d e Cobb, Roger; Ross, Jennie-Keith; Ross, Marc Howard (1976-01-01). "Agenda Building as a Comparative Political Process". The American Political Science Review. 70 (1): 126–138. doi:10.2307/1960328. JSTOR 1960328. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Cobb, Roger W.; Elder, Charles D. (1971-01-01). "The Politics of Agenda-Building: An Alternative Perspective for Modern Democratic Theory". The Journal of Politics. 33 (4): 892–915. doi:10.2307/2128415. JSTOR 2128415. 
  3. ^ a b Berkowitz, D. (1994). Kennamer, J., ed. Public Opinion, The Press, and Public Opinion. Westport, CT: Praeger. pp. 81–102. 
  4. ^ a b c Denham, Bryan E. (2010-10-01). "Toward Conceptual Consistency in Studies of Agenda-Building Processes: A Scholarly Review". Review of Communication. 10 (4): 306–323. doi:10.1080/15358593.2010.502593. 
  5. ^ Elder, Charles D.; Cobb, Roger W. (1984-09-01). "Agenda-Building and the Politics of Aging". Policy Studies Journal. 13 (1): 115–129. doi:10.1111/j.1541-0072.1984.tb01704.x. ISSN 1541-0072. 
  6. ^ Jones, B; Baumgartner, F (2005). The Politics of Attention. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226406534. 
  7. ^ a b Nisbet, Matthew C.; Brossard, Dominique; Kroepsch, Adrianne (2003). "Framing Science: The Stem Cell Controversy in an Age of PressPolitics". The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics. 8 (2): 36–70. doi:10.1177/1081180x02251047. 
  8. ^ Laursen, Lucas (2013-09-01). "Greenpeace campaign prompts Philippine ban on Bt eggplant trials". Nature Biotechnology. 31 (9): 777–778. doi:10.1038/nbt0913-777a. ISSN 1087-0156. PMID 24022142. 
  9. ^ Berkowitz, Dan. "TV News Sources and News Channels: A Study in Agenda-Building". Journalism Quarterly. 64: 508–13. doi:10.1177/107769908706400231. 
  10. ^ Kim, Ji Young; Xiang, Zheng; Kiousis, Spiro (2011). "Agenda building effects by 2008 presidential candidates on global media coverage and public opinion". Public Relations Review. 37 (1): 109–111. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2010.09.009. 
  11. ^ Lang, Gladys Engel; Lang, Kurt (1983-01-01). The Battle for Public Opinion: The President, the Press and the Polls During Watergate. Columbia Univ Pr. ISBN 9780231055482. ASIN 023105548X. 
  12. ^ Strömbäck, Jesper; Nord, Lars W. (2006-06-01). "Do Politicians Lead the Tango? A Study of the Relationship between Swedish Journalists and their Political Sources in the Context of Election Campaigns". European Journal of Communication. 21 (2): 147–164. doi:10.1177/0267323105064043. ISSN 0267-3231. 
  13. ^ Cook, T. (2006). Governing With the News, Second Edition. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226026688. 
  14. ^ Bennett, W. Lance (1990-06-01). "Toward a Theory of Press-State Relations in the United States". Journal of Communication. 40 (2): 103–127. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.1990.tb02265.x. ISSN 1460-2466. 
  15. ^ Benkler, Y. (2006). The Wealth of Networks - How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven, CT. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 
  16. ^ Sayre, Ben; Bode, Leticia; Shah, Dhavan; Wilcox, Dave; Shah, Chirag (2010-07-01). "Agenda Setting in a Digital Age: Tracking Attention to California Proposition 8 in Social Media, Online News and Conventional News". Policy & Internet. 2 (2): 7–32. doi:10.2202/1944-2866.1040. ISSN 1944-2866. 
  17. ^ Parmelee, John H. (2014-05-01). "The agenda-building function of political tweets". New Media & Society. 16 (3): 434–450. doi:10.1177/1461444813487955. ISSN 1461-4448. 
  18. ^ Wallsten, Kevin (2007-11-01). "Agenda Setting and the Blogosphere: An Analysis of the Relationship between Mainstream Media and Political Blogs". Review of Policy Research. 24 (6): 567–587. doi:10.1111/j.1541-1338.2007.00300.x. ISSN 1541-1338. 
  19. ^ Jacobson, Susan (2013-07-01). "Does Audience Participation on Facebook Influence the News Agenda? A Case Study of The Rachel Maddow Show". Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 57 (3): 338–355. doi:10.1080/08838151.2013.816706. ISSN 0883-8151. 
  20. ^ Runge, K.; Brossard, D.; Scheufele, D.; Xenos, M. (2015). "Pink slimed: A time series analysis of news coverage and social media response during the 2012 'lean finely textured beef' controversy". Paper presented at the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Association for Politics in the Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison. 
  21. ^ On The Media (2002). "Blogging Lott". WNYC. Retrieved 2016-09-26. 
  22. ^ "The Long Strange Leak Of Mitt Romney's 47% Video". Buzzfeed. 2012. Retrieved 2016-09-26. 
  23. ^ Baysinger, T. "How BuzzFeed Became the Outlet That Made the Stanford Rape Victim's Letter Go Viral". June 7, 2016. Advertising Week. Retrieved 2016-09-26. 
  24. ^ Smith, Doug (August 16, 2016). "Judge in Stanford rape case asks for move to civil cases". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2016-09-26. 
  25. ^ a b Kramer, A.; Guilory, J.; Hancock, J. "Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 111 (24): 8788–8790. doi:10.1073/pnas.1320040111. PMC 4066473Freely accessible. 
  26. ^ Oremus, Will (January 3, 2016). "Who controls your Facebook feed". 
  27. ^ Herbst, Jeffrey (April 13, 2016). "The Algorithm is an Editor". The Wall Street Journal. 
  28. ^ Ingram, Mathew (September 9, 2016). "Here's why Facebook removing that Vietnam War photo Is so Iimportant". Fortune Magazine. 
  29. ^ Tufekci, Zeynep (2016-05-19). "The Real Bias Built In at Facebook". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-09-26.