Walter Lippman developed the foundation for the agenda-setting theory when he hypothesized that the world around us is too vast for us to understand, and that we rely on the media to inform us, in turn shaping how individuals perceive the world (Sheafer & Weimann, 2005). McCombs and Shaw recognized the importance of the media to society, which led to the further development of the agenda-setting theory. According to McCombs and Shaw (1972), “the mass media set the agenda for each political campaign, influencing salience of attitudes toward political issues”.
Agenda-setting research continued as Funkhouser (1973) examined news coverage of issues and public opinion in the 1960s. His approach varied by incorporating an individual’s real life experience into the agenda-setting function (Funkhouser, 1973). Funkhouser found that a relationship between the media and public opinion does exist (Funkhouser, 1973). Shaw and McCombs (1977) later added to their original findings by examining the news media. They found the strength of the agenda-setting function increased as individuals were exposed to more content. It was also found that the impact the agenda-setting function had on an individual varied, depending upon how much exposure and the type of medium through which an individual viewed the content (Shaw ; McCombs, 1977).
The integration of the agenda-setting theory into mass communication studies changed how media researchers approached media studies. Assumptions shifted from the media telling people what to think to telling people what topics or issues they should think about (Cohen, 1963). Defleur and Ball-Rokeach (1989), also supported this notion saying that the media is not convincing individuals to change their opinion, but that there is a strong connection between the amount of coverage an issue receives by the news media and the rank of importance by the audience. Therefore, “what the media reports, people at large may see as more important” (Merilainen ; Vos, 2011, p. 296).
The mass media also plays an important role in the shaping of public opinion because they drive more attention to certain issues than to others (Lang ; Lang, 1981). “Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also the level of importance to assign to 22 that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position” (McCombs ; Shaw, 1972, p. 176). Priming and framing are two tools that the media uses in order to “shape the audience’s views on issues” (Entman, 2007). According to Weaver (2007), priming is where the media repeats content and emphasizes the importance of a particular issue or story. Framing is different because the media highlights a particular aspect of an issue over another (Schuelfele ; Tewksbury, 2007). The manner in which the news media portrays that issue or story also has an impact upon audience interpretation (Schuelfele ; Tewksbury, 2007).
As the advancement of the agenda-setting theory continued, Uscinkski (2009) argued that the traditional views of agenda-setting theory place too much power into the hands of the media. He suggested that agenda-setting can also be audience driven. (Uscinkski, 2009). The audience- driven approach occurs if a particular issue or topic becomes popular among the public, the issue/topic can then influence the media to report more on the particular issues or topics (Uscinkski, 2009). Current examples of this can be seen through the public’s increased interest in organic foods and GMOs
Technology has also had an impact on who plays a role in the agenda-setting function because individuals are now receiving their media from different sources (Merilainen & Vos, 2011). The rise of the Internet and online communication has contributed to the change in who participates in the agenda-setting function. “Online has become the new mass medium” and individuals are now directly going to online sources to retrieve their news instead of traditional media outlets (Merilainen & Vos, 2011, p. 23 296). Organizations now have a greater opportunity to participate in agenda-setting functions because online communication enables them to directly interact with their publics (Merilainen & Vos, 2011).
Agricultural studies have also explored how the agenda-setting function occurs and impacts the agricultural industry. How the news media reports on the agricultural industry is considered to be sensational reporting, where an issue receives a high level of attention and then dies off quickly (Nelkin, 1995). Scientific discoveries and crisis are also the focus of most reports on the agricultural industry (Nelkin, 1995). According to Nucci and Kubey (2007), “The media controls who is chosen to present opinions or information about a story presented in the news” (p. 152) and who presented the information assists in framing how the issue is perceived by the public. Agricultural stories are also being framed by what section of the newspaper they are placed in. Most stories about agriculture are reported under the business section because of the investments and economic and social challenges of companies (Logan, 2001).
Much of agenda-setting research in the agricultural industry explores how agricultural issues and crisis are being framed by the news media and their audience, and more recently, how issues are being framed in messages distributed through digital communication technology, such as social media. According to Cannon and Irani (2011), framing is not always positive or negative when discussing stories in the news media, it is just how the story is presented, which in turn shapes the audience’s perception of the issues. A popular agricultural issue or crisis that has produced framing research is bovine 24 spongiform encephalopathy, BSE, more commonly known as mad cow disease. In 2004, a research study looked at the 1996 BSE outbreak in Britian and how it was framed in The Guardian and New York Times newspapers (Han, 2004). The study found that there was no change in the issues being covered or the sources being used before and after the outbreak, but there was a shift toward a negative tone, or frame, after the outbreak k in Britian and how it was framed in The Guardian and New York Times newspapers (Han, 2004). The study found that there was no change in the issues being covered or the sources being used before and after the outbreak, but there was a shift toward a negative tone, or frame, after the outbreak occurred (Han, 2004). Shortly after, another research study examined how the Canadian media framed the 2003 Canadian BSE outbreak. It was found that the Canadian media was also using a negative frame that shaped the audience’s perception to see the outbreak as severe and disastrous to the cattle industry and to humans who consumed beef (Ruth, Eubanks, & Teig, 2005). The study also found that when a health frame is used, that the negative frame is more commonly used and the severity of the issue is exaggerated (Ruth, Eubanks, & Teig, 2005). This higher chance of a negative frame on health issues poses a problem to the agricultural industry because food production will always be linked to health concerns. For example, a research study was done to determine how organic food is framed through the news media and it was determined that the “national newspapers portrayed organic food as part of a moral and ethical responsibility for the environment, society, and consumers” (Meyers & Abrams, 2010). This positive frame on organic food then began a cycle of agenda-setting, where the media positively portrays an issue, the audience then has increased interest in the issues, which causes the media to continue to report on the issue due to audience-driven agenda-setting (Meyers & Abrams, 2010).
Agenda-setting theory has also been used to explore newer communication technology. One study looked at how agricultural messages were perceived on agricultural websites and used framing as theoretical foundation and how agricultural organizations should frame their messages for the public (Goodwin, Chiarelli, & Irani, 2011). The results of the study suggested that agricultural organizations needed to understand what type of messages attract their target audience so that the organizations are able to frame the messages to benefit the organization (Goodwin, Chiarelli, & Irani, 2011). There have also been framing studies exploring how agricultural issues are framed in social media, such as YouTube (Rhoades & Ellis, 2010).
The Media Framing Theory is credited to Shanto Iyengar in 1991. It is one of many framing theories that specifically deals with media. Framing, as a theory of mass communication, refers to how the media packages and presents information to the public. According to the theory, the media highlights certain events and then places them within a particular context to encourage or discourage certain interpretations. In this way, the media exercises a selective influence over how people view reality. Framing is sometimes referred to as second-level agenda setting because of its close relation to Agenda-Setting Theory. Communication practitioners utilize message frames to shape public opinion through media coverage. Organizations and people who advocate for and against the agriculture industry utilize these different frames, on social media, to effects viewer’s opinions toward the agriculture industry.
This study will build a foundation on the agenda-setting theory as it seeks to explore how agricultural organizations and the news media are portraying agricultural information and stories and how audiences perceive the industry. The focus will be on college aged students, and based of social media portrayal and communication of the agriculture industry.
Agriculture Industry and Social Media
Understanding social media use by the agricultural industry is important because they are speaking to an older, more rural, and less technologically savvy audience (Barbassa, 2010). Farmers and agricultural communicators often lag in the adoption of technology and have historically been limited in their access to new communication technologies (Tweeten, 2014). In the past, news and trends within the agricultural industry traveled via face-to-face interactions, but social media has sparked a change in the way the agricultural industry communicates (Varner, 2012). With increased Internet access and mobile technology, more individuals within the agricultural industry now have access to communication technologies, such as social media (Sutter, 2009). To develop a relationship with the media, individuals and organizations within the agricultural industry need to understand how to use new technology to benefit communication efforts.
In recent years, there have been efforts to educate farmers and individuals in the agricultural industry about social media and its importance. One example is the development of the Ag Chat Foundation. The Ag Chat Foundation is “empowering farmers and ranchers to connect communities through social media platforms” (Ag Chat Foundation, 2014). This online platform encourages farmers to learn about and use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate their messages. AgChat is just one of many efforts being made to help the agricultural industry become an active participant and reap the benefits of the social media world.
Social media is a great value for the agricultural industry because it can be used for marketing, branding, agricultural news, combating of myths and bad publicity, monitoring public opinion, and crisis and risk communication (Payne-Kopner, 2009). Farmers and agricultural communicators are now able to reach audiences that would not have received their messages in the past (Knutson, 2011; Meyers et al., 2011). The ability to distribute information in a faster and more direct manner enables agricultural communicators to distribute information that may help consumers and the public gain a better understanding of the industry as a whole (Allen, Abrams, Meyers ; Shultz, 2014). This stronger representation of the agricultural industry is not only educating individuals, but it also is putting a face to the industry, making it more relatable to consumers and the public (Payne-Kopner, 2009).
The agricultural industry also benefits from social media use because it allows advocates to reach a younger audience, who will in turn make decisions in the future that will impact the industry (Grant, 2010). The agricultural industry is highly dependent on the public, and vice versa, and needs the public’s support to remain intact. Recent agricultural technological developments and political issues have caused a crucial need to effectively communicate about agricultural issues to the public (Roth, Vogt, & Weinheimer, 2002).
Facebook is the most popular social networking site used among agricultural organizations because it is well-known among the target audience and has received the most scholarly attention (Tweeten, 2014). Agriculturalists are using Facebook to “agvocate”, tell their stories, and communicate with consumers and the public (White, et al, 2014). Although Facebook has been an effective social media platform, agriculturalists believe it is important to build interconnectivity between different types of social media in order to be more successful (Meyers, Irlbeck, Graybill-Leonard, & Doerfert, 2011). Agriculturalists have been satisfied with their adoption and use of social media and plan to continue moving forward with social media as a communication tool (White, et al, 2014).
As previously mentioned, the agricultural communicators are using agricultural media sources and print media as media relations tools but do not believe they are effectively reaching out to the mainstream media (Ruth-McSwain, 2008). Although there is limited research in the agricultural industry about using social media as a media relations tool, the research which does examine it has proven it successful, therefore future research should continue to explore the use of social media as a communication tool for agricultural organizations.