Media Bias and Agenda Setting

… a core concept used in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below) discusses the effect of media and bias on public policy implementation.

Pal writes (p. 362-366):

“Public policy is shaped and fashioned by a host of actors – ordinary citizens, politicians, public officials, think tanks, academic institutions, government relations experts, nongovernmental organizations, and third party panels such as task forces and ad hoc panels. However, debates over policy rarely take place directly, and most citizens get exposed to these debates through the media, typically television news, magazines, newspapers, and so on. The question is whether these media simply and faithfully channel those debates to the public, or whether they have their own biases and agendas, and consequently an independent effect by shaping how people think about policy issues. Moreover, this question about the role and impact of the media can be posed in different ways.

Deliberate bias and structural bias

“For example, one way to think about media bias is to look for deliberate “spin” that intentionally is designed to influence readers/viewers in a particular direction. The New York Times, for example, is generally conceded to be both the newspaper of record in the United States, as well as generally on the “liberal” side of the political spectrum. In editorials and in its decisions about what to cover, the paper can be relied on to give Democratic approaches to public policy favourable coverage. Conservatives and Republicans typically come in for more scrutiny and critique. In Canada, the Globe and Mail is broadly considered to be the national newspaper of record, and its editorial approach and columnists tend to be slightly right of centre.

“This notion of deliberate bias in the media is a regular theme of more conservatively oriented policy advocates. For example, in discussing his “ten commandments” for successful conservative political campaigns, Flanagan argues that the “media can be savage with any party that lacks discipline, but they are particularly suspicious of conservatives. There is no point complaining about it; the situation is the same everywhere in the democratic world. But it means that conservative parties must put special emphasis on self-discipline if they expect to win elections” (Flanagan, 2009, p. 284).”

“Another kind of bias in the media has also attracted attention: the structural bias of the way in which the media are organized and how they function. This is not a specific or even deliberate political or policy bias. Altheide and Snow (1991) first introduced the idea of “media logics” to capture this structural feature. “Thus, television as a medium, for instance, is visual and exists in time; the press is a textual medium that takes up space. They have different communicative forms and time frames of production. Hence political actors using these media will have to use different approaches. Also, within any given medium there are important genre differences: A local radio talk show is not the same as a national news broadcast, and a popular television magazine operates differently from a highbrow debate program” (Dahlgren, 2009, p. 53). The usual concern that is expressed is that modern media, especially television, operate on a logic that is rapidly “dumbing down” the citizenry and eroding public trust and civic engagement. Television thrives on “infotainment” and visuals, driving out hard journalism in favour of slick images that titillate and mesmerize. Modern media have been accused of creating an artificial environment of fear since that sells advertising (Altheide, 2002), of reducing citizens to passive spectators in election campaigns, and of contributing to more inequality and marginalization, which gets reflected in lower and lower voter turnouts (Stanyer, 2007).”

The media’s role in agenda setting

Pal writes (p. 364):

“These two approaches to media bias (the personal/cultural and the structural) raise an important question … How do the media contribute to setting the societal policy agenda? Do decisionmakers and politicians take their cues from media stories (e.g., developing an anti-crime policy agenda simply because crime news sells, and so the public demands that “something be done”)? The more pessimistic analyses of the impact of the media assume that they do perform an agenda-setting role, or at the very least provide an important set of filters for people to make judgments about  policy issues and what is considered important on the political agenda. For example, the workday for any political adviser begins with a scan of the media “clippings” (increasingly, electronic stories, blogs, and tweets) to anticipate and prepare for the issues that will intrude on the day ahead. This review sets the agenda for Question Period (for both government and opposition sides) and can also overtake the agendas for political and bureaucratic officials who must drop their normal to-do list to develop media lines to respond to a reporter’s inquiry or prepare a cabinet minister for the first media scrum on the heels of a story relevant to his or her portfolio.

“At their best, the media inform and enlighten, but they may also train attention in a distorting way. Part of the problem is attribution – we might see an overemphasis on crime in relation to actual statistics (which show that it is gradually decreasing over time), but does that mean that the media influenced the federal Omnibus Crime Bill introduced by the Conservative government in early 2012? Even the complaints we cited earlier about liberal bias in the media generally agree that, with enough discipline, the media can be partially managed (e.g., “killing” a potentially damaging story through rapid response with text messages, tweets, and blogs, or feeding the media’s insatiable appetite for material by releasing mountains of prewritten press releases and other “stories”). Which way do the causal arrows point? Recent research suggests that the agenda-setting power of the media has been somewhat exaggerated.

“Soroka conducted an exhaustive analysis of eight public policy issues on the assumption that different issues with different characteristics will have different agenda dynamics: AIDS, crime, debt/deficit, environment, inflation, national unity, taxes, and unemployment (Soroka, 2002). Previous work on issue types had arrived at several key characteristics: obtrusiveness, duration, abstractness, and drama. Massaging these slightly, he arrived at a fresh typology of three types of issues: prominent, sensational, and governmental. Prominent issues are obtrusive and concrete, and affect people directly, and so there is little scope for either media or policy impact on public opinion. Sensational issues lack a direct impact on most people, but are unobtrusive and concrete and so have the greatest potential to be media driven. Governmental issues, again, do not affect most people directly, but are usually not chosen by the media since they lack exciting or dramatic features. In these cases, the policy agenda, not the media, drives the issue. By tracking media reports, public opinion polls, and government/policy activities (e.g., budget speech, committee reports), Soroka found reasonably strong evidence for the salience of different types of issues: “… inflation and unemployment display exactly what the prominent issue type leads us to expect. These issues are real-world driven, with little room for other dynamics. Environment, on the other hand, demonstrates considerable media impact….  Debt/deficit appears to be a good illustration of governmental issue dynamics: media content, sparked by the 1989 Throne Speech, led public attention” (Soroka, 2002, p. 97).”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Consulting and Communicating on Policy (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto.

Altheide, D. L. (2002). Creating fear: News and the construction of crisis. New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

Altheide, D. L., & Snow, R. P. (1991). Media worlds in the postjournalism era. New York, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

Flanagan, T. (2009). Harper’s team: Behind the scenes in the Conservative rise to power. Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Soroka, S. N. (2002). Agenda-setting dynamics in Canada. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

Stanyer, J. (2007). Modern political communication. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 8 April 2017.

Image: Terry Mattingly, Get Religion, at, accessed 8 April 2017.