Public Agenda

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Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project

At any given time, there are a few issues that are receiving "public attention." These issues change dramatically from day to day offering the public very little time to actually think about one issue, before another one takes its place. In addition to the manic novelty, the stories offer little real information, especially about alternatives or opportunities for public involvement. Even the "news" is entertainment. In the US (and other places) the "market" is credited / blamed for "giving the people what they want." Thus while television and other commercial media stupefies people, the owners merely shrug their shoulders and say that they're just giving people what they want. This turns out often to be grisly murders, cheesy voyeurism, celebrity romance (or, better, divorce), and advertisements, advertisements, advertisements. In less "free" societies, the governing elites make all decisions about what is news — and guess what — governmental misdeeds aren't news. Who decides what issues are important, what issues are on the public agenda?


If the public agenda is simply the set of issues that people happen to have in their heads at any given time then we can say that a "public agenda" exists. If the public agenda consists of issues that ought to be considered in a public way, particularly how does society use our limited resources and what is truly important, then the public agenda is a far cry from it could be.


During a 1999 interview on the local Seattle public radio affiliate, a woman who was involved in the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle was asked "why it was necessary to break glass" to get the issues on the public agenda. She first mentioned that she and her colleagues had been trying unsuccessfully to get these issues on the public agenda for a decade and that she was opposed to using violence against people or property. She went on to say, however, that one couldn't help but notice that after windows were smashed in Seattle the media, pundits and others seemed to acknowledge the issues more readily — at least for a week or so. Hence we make the argument here that "It shouldn't be necessary to break glass" for citizens and citizen groups to get a public airing for the issues that they feel are important.

Where do the "pictures in our heads" (Lippman, 1921) and the issues that we're contemplating at the moment come from? Certainly we are all "free" to come up with something that's all our own but this is not likely to be commonplace. When we see something, something else in our mind is triggered. We may interpret the information in our particular way but the new information is the driver — not something else. At any rate, it's not the idiosyncratic and disconnected thought that's important, it's the focused, diverse, engaged and thoughtful collective mind that democracy requires. The sounds and the images that the big electronic billboard, always there and always on, holds aloft for the world to view will obviously garner more attention ("mind share") than something with less visibility — which, of course, is everything else. The press as Bernard Cohen points out, "may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling it's readers what to think about"

Maxwell McCombs' and Donald Shaw's paper on "The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media" (1972) brought the notion that the mass media is instrumental to agenda-setting to prominence. This paper demonstrated that the public's answers to the perennial Gallup Poll question "What is the most important problem facing this country today?" could be predicted quite clearly by looking at the news as presented by the newspapers, network television news, and news magazines that were available at that time in the month prior to the poll. In a more recent paper, McCombs reported that since the original article, "more than 300 published studies worldwide have documented this influence of the news media."

Now, some 35 years after the original publication, the media landscape has changed considerably. People (at least in the U.S.) have more choices and many apparently "choose" to be ill-informed. The mass media with its collage of seemingly random information about movie start divorces, dog food, genocide, game shows, laugh tracks, mass starvation, cell phones, climate change, "shock jocks", trailer fires, bus plunges, talking heads, celebrity chit-chat, invasions may be actually doing more to muddle than to inform.

The Internet, however, is currently providing an interesting challenge to the hegemony of the mass media. Community networks and Indymedia showed glimpses that other ways of producing and consuming news were possible. The explosion of blogs of every type is the latest salvo along these lines. In fact, as of the end of the 2003, 2/3 of the blogs were political (Delwiche, 2005). The blogging phenomenon suggests many things including the blurring of the division between producers and consumers of journalism and the continuing fragmentation of journalism roles and venues. Some of the more interesting questions, recently explored by Aaron Delwiche (2005), are whether the blogs are — or can be — agenda-setters in their own right and whether they can serve as a tonic and an alternative to their mass-produced forbearers.

It would be naive to think the mass media will provide citizens with the information that they need without pressure from the citizenry. They'll say first that their first responsibility is their stockholders. We must remember that just because something is mentioned in the mass media doesn't mean that it's irrelevant and vapid. Although the previous statement was made with tongue in cheek, there is certainly a danger (as well as a temptation) to disregard all mass media. The realization that traditional (mass) media is ready and willing (and generally capable) of diverting attention from the important to the superfluous is a significant first step but it's just a start. Monitoring the media systems, constructing a broad and compelling alternative agenda must be an ongoing enterprise.


We need to think about what belongs on the public agenda and what we can do to put it there and keep it there. This may mean working in opposition to — and in cooperation with — existing media systems. It must certainly involve developing diverse and specialized "public agendas" including ones related to research as Carolyn Raffensperger and her colleagues advise (1999).

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The issues receiving "public attention" change dramatically from day to day giving us little time to actually think about one issue, before another takes its place. Who decides what issues are important, what issues are on the public agenda? The public agenda ought to be more than the set of issues that people have in their heads at any given time. We need to think about what issues belong on the Public Agenda and what we can do to put those issues there and keep them there.

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