The Agenda Setting And Spiral Of Silence Media Essay

1575 words (6 pages) Essay

1st Jan 1970 Media Reference this


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Alan Crosbie, who is the Chairman of Thomas Crosbie Holdings, a large Irish media player said in his speech commented on new media “there is a tsunami of information coming from new media some of which has the “capacity to destroy civil society and cause unimaginable suffering.” Let us try and understand why Media holds so much power. Significantly Media has had a dominating influence over people’s lives and opinions since time immemorial. A classic example of convincing people of one’s beliefs was during the Nazi Regime. The entire nation was convinced of the Nazi ideologies through getting the entire media channels either under the government’s control or having censorship rights over the privately owned ones. This resulted in patriotic and nationalistic sentiments being instilled in songs, movies and even the news was censored to suit the ideology of the Nazis. The world as we see and know of around us is through the media and is hence is a second-hand reality portrayed to us by the media owners of the society. This becomes highly ominous in face of the fact that the entire world media is owned by about 9 Conglomerates only. Hence when there is a plethora of news bytes available, the news that reaches us is what the Media channels think newsworthy. And this is just a percentage of the world news that is present around us. “This ability to influence which issues, persons and topics are perceived as the most important of the day is called the agenda-setting role of the mass media” – McCombs, 2004. The origin of the Agenda Setting Theory happened when Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw (1972), professors at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill used the presidential elections of the United States of America in 1968 as a live study to investigate the relationship if existed between the important issues of the public and that between the priority issues of the mass media.  McCombs and Shaw were able to determine the degree to which the media, in Bernard Cohen’s words, “tell us [(the public)] what to think about.”

Agenda setting theory has two levels to it.

The magnitude of media coverage the particular article gets

How the article or object in question has been covered

First Level Agenda deals with the issues present on the public, political and media domain. This is the most important area of the agenda setting research where media is seen as a highly influencing factor to the public and political issues. Second level agenda setting is more closer to framing. McCombs in his study discussed how second level agenda setting is more specific to the attributes that define the object in question. “Balmas and Sheafer (2010) argued that the focus at the first level agenda-setting which emphasizes media’s role in telling us “what to think about” is shifted to media’s function of telling us “how to think about” at the second level agenda-setting.” The similarity between second level agenda setting and framing is that they both are related with how a particular issue is portrayed, with mildness or with sensationalization. They are generic and not the issue or object specific. However they differ on the account of intensity, since framing is a higher degree or an extension of second level agenda setting.

Spiral of Silence

Spiral of Silence originates from understanding the Asch experiment (1958) and the Milgram experiment (1963). Asch experiment was a study on conformity. This basically measures how much other people get pressurized into changing their opinion or falling in line when people more powerful or in more volume than them do so. Other reasons for conforming are to not be isolated from the mass and be liked by their peer groups. The Milgram experiment tested the effects of punishment and hence understood the concepts of Obedience and Authority. These experiments prove that mass or volume opinions have a huge impact on individual opinions. The Spiral of Silence theory was created by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1974). “Public opinion is the dominant opinion which compels compliance of attitude and behavior in that it threatens the dissenting individual with isolation and the politician with loss of support.”

In the words of its originator Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann: “observations made in one context the mass media spread to another and encouraged people either to proclaim their views or to swallow them and keep quite until ,in a spiraling process, the one view dominated the public scene and the other disappeared from public awareness as its adherents became mute , this is the process that can be called a spiral of silence’.

This basically emphasizes on how when an individual feels they are in a minority, out of numerous fears and insecurities, they feel it better to be a part of the popular and mass opinion and hence an issue even if relevant if doesn’t have anything to do with the majority will spiral into silence. The silence of a person, who differs from the majority, spirals upwards & thus forcing other people to stay silent.



Explains why the people remain silent when they find themselves to be the minority.

Explains the influence created by media over the crucial issues.

Explains why people prefer to withhold their true feelings. Rather than take the risk of being isolated

Explains how the spirals of silence solve the societal conflicts.


Does not apply completely to the field of media as the aspects of fear of isolation & reprisal does not hold true in the virtual world.

Questions the transparency in quantifying the majority & the minority.

Co-relation between Agenda Setting and Spiral of Silence

According to Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, the spiral of silence and the agenda setting theory go hand in hand. She believed that media plays a major role in forming public opinions. Therefore the masses shape their opinions in accordance with the media and according to her, media is the strongest bridge between these two theories.

We can support the above point with the help of an example. During the Nazi period, Hitler was convinced that German race is far superior than anyone else on this planet. He made an extensive use of the media tools available at that time to convince the people about the same. Some people believed this but there were a lot of them who did not believe in this concept of German superiority. Although they did not believe, none of them raised their voice because of the fear of the Nazi regime and the fear of isolation. They convinced this case.

Examples of Agenda Setting Theory

The role of media in shaping public opinion about The Iraq War –

The marketing effort by the Bush administration to gain support for the invasion of Iraq began to get into full swing by the fall of 2002. When Condolezza Rice, then National Security Advisor to the President, was asked a question on the case of preemptive war in a CNN interview, she said- “We know that he [Saddam] has the infrastructure, nuclear scientists to make a nuclear weapon. And we know that when the inspectors assessed this after the Gulf War, he was far, far closer to a crude nuclear device than anybody thought, maybe six months from a crude nuclear device…There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Even the President made similar remarks about Saddam’s WMD program less than a month later on 7th October, 2002, “America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof-the smoking gun-that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

These and other such statements marked the beginning of what the Center for Public Integrity called, “false statements”, in their 2008 report titled, “Iraq-The War Card: Orchestrated Deception on the Path to War.”

The number of “false reports” increased tremendously towards the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003, so did the general perception about Saddam’s nuclear program, suggesting a strong case for media agenda-setting.

Future of Agenda Setting Theory

With the introduction of the ‘horizontal media’ and the internet, people have the option of following what they want without anyone forcing an opinion on them.

The change in the technology and media has led to several changes in the agenda setting theory. This change is called as Agenda Mending which talks about “the personal agendas of individuals vis-à-vis their community and group affiliations “. This means that individuals join groups and blend their agendas with the agendas of the group. 


Agenda Setting Theory does not take into account the personal interests of an individual. Any issue considered salient by the media does not necessarily has to be important for the people.

This theory uses a very scientific approach, therefore it’s not able to stand the test of scrutiny as humans are very unpredictable.

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