Technological advances and the popularity of social media are forcing researchers to rethink how mass communication affects people, according to Wayne Wanta, professor in the Department of Media and Communication.
Previous theoretical models proposed social learning as a main outcome of news media use. The public learns about the important issues of the day through the amount of coverage those issues receive, a process called agenda setting. However, researchers are now using tweets on Twitter and posts on Facebook as measures of public concern, Wanta said.
“Researchers who use social media as a measure of public concern are no longer examining a cognitive effect,” he said. “This goes well beyond the original idea of agenda setting. With social media, people may learn about an issue from the media, and may become concerned with the issue, but they now do something about this concern. They post something on social media. So the effect researchers are now examining is behavioral.”
Wanta also noted that posts on social media may not be an example of concern with an issue, but rather interest, a point acknowledged by a member of the audience.
Another audience member questioned Wanta on his assertion that the agenda-setting effect is mostly positive because news consumers are learning about important issues. The question was raised about the news in countries where the media are tightly controlled by the government. Journalistic standards are clearly different across nations, Wanta said.
Other obstacles to agenda-setting research include the use of caller ID and voice mail to screen calls from interviewers, low completion rates for online surveys and statistical measures employed by researchers.
“Agenda setting has been studied for nearly 50 years,” Wanta said. “It has demonstrated great resilience. It admittedly has a lot of flows, but no one does perfect research.”
Wanta’s lecture, titled “The Cloudy Future of Agenda-Setting Research,” was part of the Department of Media and Communications’ Research Seminar Series.