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Example of the “Agenda-Setting Media” at Work

The news media, like any other collective, has hierarchies.  Scholars refer to the phenomenon as the “Agenda-Setting Media” (ASM).  Described by Linguist/Political Activist/MIT Professor Noam Chomsky:

“There is another sector of the media, the elite media, sometimes called the agenda-setting media because they are the ones with the big resources, they set the framework in which everyone else operates. The New York Times and CBS, that kind of thing. Their audience is mostly privileged people. The people who read the New York Times—people who are wealthy or part of what is sometimes called the political class—they are actually involved in the political system in an ongoing fashion. They are basically managers of one sort or another. They can be political managers, business managers (like corporate executives or that sort of thing), doctoral managers (like university professors), or other journalists who are involved in organizing the way people think and look at things.

The elite media set a framework within which others operate. If you are watching the Associated Press, who grind out a constant flow of news, in the mid-afternoon it breaks and there is something that comes along every day that says “Notice to Editors: Tomorrow’s New York Times is going to have the following stories on the front page.” The point of that is, if you’re an editor of a newspaper in Dayton, Ohio and you don’t have the resources to figure out what the news is, or you don’t want to think about it anyway, this tells you what the news is. These are the stories for the quarter page that you are going to devote to something other than local affairs or diverting your audience.” (Chomsky, N. “What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream,” Z Magazine, October, 1997)

There was a great example of the hierarchy at work this weekend with Rob Bliss’ “World’s Largest Water Slide.”  Here’s how it went:

  1. Local media covered the water slide.
  2. This elevated the story to the attention of the ASM in the form of the New York Times.
  3. Now endorsed by the New York Times (a member of the ASM), the story was then picked up by the Denver Post, National Public Radio and even the Sydney Morning Herald.
  4. The fact that the story was picked up by the ASM became newsworthy to the Grand Rapids Press, which reported on it (Catch that? A news outlet reported on the fact that a story was reported on by another news outlet).

Understanding the ecology of the media environment is, predictably, critical to practicing public relations.

In the past few decades, however, the ASM has experienced a rather steep slide in credibility.  The Pew Center for the People and the Press and Gallup Polls have done an excellent job documenting this decline:

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I think we may be witnessing the death of the ASM – or at the very least, a decline in the traditional ASM (which will create a vacuum to be filled by a new ASM).  That would be the logical conclusion to draw as the circulation numbers of the ASM continue to decline.  Look at the New York Times circulation numbers for example (via the Political Calculations blog which put together this graph from the NYT’s annual reports):

NYT-Sunday-Circulation-1993-2007

…and that graph stops at 2007; the decline has continued (or even accelerated) for most of the members of the ASM.

What next?  To be effective at communicating, PR pros need to continually be on the lookout for the influencers who will replace the ASM.  It’s likely that they’re not going to be nearly as consolidated as the traditional ASM; they’ll likely be splintered into many different topic-focused news outlets.

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