The Media (still) Sets the Agenda

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In spite of the changing media landscape, the media still sets the agenda for policy discussions. This is one of the biggest reasons COMPASS incorporates journalist trainers, and a focus on traditional media, in our science communications trainings. And, while we recognize that news is moving increasingly online – and that the interplay between traditional and new media is undoubtedly complex* –  the traditional media continues to play a key role in setting the agenda, even for online content.

A member of the media ask a question in a briefing. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army via Flickr.

I couldn’t help but observe this agenda-setting in action when I watched the election coverage earlier this week on CNN, and followed a variety of interactive and differently scaled result maps on a bevvy of websites. Indeed, the entire theory of the media’s “agenda-setting” was formulated after studying the 1968 presidential election!  Nearly all news websites hosted something about the election, and it was easy to see each how outlet’s style catered to their audience (local news showed local and state results alongside pertinent national results; national news blared constant updates alongside predictions of what that might mean for the country writ large).  Traditional, large news sites with the resources to gather information quickly had the most up-to-date coverage on their television programs, as well as on their websites.

In fact, it’s likely that the candidates themselves first heard the results from the news media. In Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago, jumbotrons displayed the CNN coverage, Romney’s in Boston showed Fox, and the crowds of volunteers gathered at each camp responded accordingly to each prediction. The announcement of results by different media outlets at different times throughout the evening no doubt affected the mood in both campaign’s camps and afforded a roadmap for predicting next-steps.  In fact, the public’s media consumption, and the concurrent online and social media discussions on the topics, may way well have even affected voter turnout, as it did in this study.

Policymakers still look to the traditional media (in all of its forms) to gauge the pulse of the population, and it will continue to be the most important tool for disseminating information to the wider public.  For scientists, learning how navigate the media landscape and where it might be appropriate to tap in is still essential when informing the public of your work and why it matters.  The traditional media world is still the trusted foundation for informing the public, elevating understanding, setting the agenda, and framing social issues.

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About Meghan Miner

Meghan has been COMPASS' Science Outreach Specialist since February, 2012. In her spare time, she enjoys reading non-fiction books (mostly about shipwrecks) acquired en masse from her mother's bookstore in northern Michigan.

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