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Journalism Studies
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AGENDA-SETTING AND ATTITUDES


Spiro Kiousis
Published online: 04 Sep 2010.

To cite this article: Spiro Kiousis (2011) AGENDA-SETTING AND ATTITUDES, Journalism Studies,
12:3, 359-374, DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2010.501149
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AGENDA-SETTING AND ATTITUDES


Exploring the impact of media salience on
perceived salience and public attitude
strength of US presidential candidates from
1984 to 2004

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Spiro Kiousis

This study examined the relationships between media salience of presidential candidate images,
perceived candidate salience, and public attitude strength using media and public opinion data
from six US presidential elections. The results indicate that media salience is positively related to
both public salience and attitude strength. In addition, the findings offer modest evidence
suggesting that the sequence of influence among these variables entails media salience leading to
stronger attitudes, which subsequently results in increased public salience. The implications of the
findings are discussed.
KEYWORDS agenda-setting; attitude strength; candidate salience; catastrophe theory of
attitudes; hierarchy of effects; priming

Introduction
For more than three decades, the major emphasis of agenda-setting scholarship has
been on examining the transfer of object and attribute salience from the media to the
public (e.g., Chyi and McCombs, 2004; Craft and Wanta, 2004; Ghanem, 1997; Ku et al.,
2003; Shaw and McCombs, 1977; Wanta et al., 2004; Weaver et al., 1981). Despite its
extensive history, little is known about how the agenda-setting process impacts on
attitudes. While accounting for persuasional shifts was not the original intention of the
theory, it has always implicitly suggested that mass media exert some influence on
individuals attitudes and behaviors (McCombs, 2004; McCombs and Estrada, 1997; Shaw,
1979). Indeed, recent research has called for further scholarship probing outcomes of the
process (e.g., Kiousis et al., 2005; McCombs, 2004; Weaver et al., 2004).
Although some scholars have hinted at such possible valence consequences, few
investigations have scrutinized public attitudes from an agenda-setting perspective. The
limited work analyzing attitudes has concentrated on candidate images and is usually
confined to probing how the salience of public issues shapes opinions concerning political
leaders via priming (e.g., Iyengar, 1988; Schleuder et al., 1991). A more fundamental
question, however, entails how does media salience towards objects in the news
themselves sway public attitudes towards those same objects?
Some scholarship addressing this question has proposed a linkage between agendasetting and attitude strength (e.g., Kiousis and McCombs, 2004; Weaver 1984, 1991),
although it has been restricted by the use of cross-sectional data to explore such
relationships. Accordingly, the purpose of this investigation is to examine the connections
Journalism Studies, Vol. 12, No 3, 2011, 359374
ISSN 1461-670X print/1469-9699 online
2011 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2010.501149

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among media salience of presidential candidate images (as objects), perceived candidate
salience, and public attitude strength employing longitudinal media and public opinion
data from six US presidential elections.

Theoretical Background

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Agenda-setting
The principal theoretical assertion of agenda-setting involves the transfer of salience
from the media to the public. Whereas the bulk of empirical work has probed the salience of
issues (e.g., Ader, 1993; Ku et al., 2003; Nelson, 1984), other studies have scrutinized the
salience of political candidate images and foreign nations (e.g., King, 1997; McCombs et al.,
2000; Wanta et al., 2004; Weaver et al., 1981). In many historical reviews, this has been called
first-level agenda-setting because media influence on objects in the news has been the
chief topic of inquiry (e.g., McCombs and Shaw, 1993).
Evolving from this basic framework, scholars have linked object types together by
observing that the amount of attention media accord to political issues can alter the way
candidates are evaluated in public opinion (e.g., Johnson et al., 1992; Schleuder et al.,
1991). Also known as priming, this consequence of agenda-setting has received robust
empirical support (e.g., Druckman et al., 2004; Holbrook and Hill, 2005; Iyengar, 1988;
Iyengar and Kinder, 1987; Mendelsohn, 1996; Miller and Krosnick, 2000).
For example, in an analysis of news coverage and public opinion during the first Gulf
War, Iyengar and Simon (1993) found that presidential job approval ratings of George
H. W. Bush were significantly connected with his perceived performance on foreign policy
matters. Elsewhere, Krosnick and Kinder (1990) reported similar patterns for the impact of
media attention concerning the Iran-Contra scandal on public evaluations of Ronald
Reagan. More recently, de Vreese (2004) noted that media attention to the introduction of
the Euro in Denmark was associated with priming effects on Danish political leaders.
Thus, the convergence of agenda-setting and priming has offered a parsimonious
theoretical backdrop for understanding how changes in perceived issue salience
prompted by media coverage can modify public attitudes and behaviors (Willnat, 1997).
While helpful, such research supplies an incomplete picture of news impact, though,
because it misses the more basic question of how does news media attention towards
objects themselves shape opinions and attitudes regarding those objects? Also known as
basic priming, this relationship submits that increased media salience is connected to
the development and expression of opinions about objects (McCombs and Reynolds,
2002). While other conceptual perspectives suggest a relationship between news attention
and candidate awareness, agenda-setting can serve as an important complement because
of its emphasis on the transfer of salience. McCombs writes:
When the key term of this theoretical metaphor, the agenda, is considered in totally
abstract terms, the potential for expanding beyond an agenda of issues becomes clear. In
most discussions of the agenda-setting role of mass media the unit of analysis on each
agenda is an object, a public issue. However, public issues are not the only objects that
can be analyzed from an agenda-setting perspective. (2004, p. 69)

By focusing on the transfer of candidate salience, an agenda-setting perspective


offers an explicit theoretical framework for exploring the relationships among news
coverage, public salience, and opinion formation.

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AGENDA-SETTING AND ATTITUDES

In addition to basic priming, the literature has noted that priming effects can
emerge from media emphasis on attributes, as well as objects, based on the explication of
second-level agenda-setting (McCombs, 2004). The basic idea behind second-level
agenda-setting is that media influence on the public agenda extends beyond the salience
of objects (most often issues or political figures) but also to attributes. Attributes can be
thought of as the characteristics and qualities that describe objects. The two most
common types of attributes examined in the literature are substantive and affective ones,
the latter of which is suggestive of impacts on public attitudes (Kiousis et al., 2006). Thus,
attribute priming results when media salience of attributes impacts on evaluations of
objects. Though not yet explored theoretically or empirically, the transfer of attribute
salience can also produce basic priming when media salience on attributes leads to the
holding of opinions about objects. In sum then, four major types of attitudinal outcomes
can be explicated from an agenda-setting perspective: basic priming, priming, attribute
priming, and basic attribute priming. The present analysis focuses on the first type, but the
others merit additional scholarly attention in future research.

Attitude Strength
Given the growing body of research underscoring the possible association between
agenda-setting and persuasion, one wonders why only a few scholars have examined its
attitudinal and behavioral impacts (e.g., Scho enbach and Weaver, 1985; Wanta, 1997).
Emphasizing this point, Shaw (1979) asserted that attitudes and behaviors are usually
governed by cognitions*what a person knows, thinks, believes. Hence, the agendasetting function of the mass media implies a potentially massive influence whose full
dimensions and consequences have yet to be investigated and appreciated. Still relevant
today, testing agenda-setting beyond conventional questions of salience is needed to
probe the theorys potential. When taken together, agenda-setting and priming outline
how enhanced thinking and learning about objects and their attributes might modify
public attitudes. By theorizing in a similar manner, we can delineate some specific
attitudinal outcomes emerging from the process.
In its classic formulation, agenda-setting was focused on the cognitive influence of
mass communication as opposed to an emphasis on attitude change (McCombs and
Shaw, 1972). The limited effects model, which agenda-setting was largely a response to,
asserted that mass media had minimal impact on public attitudes and opinions (Klapper,
1960). In agenda-setting, scholars were able to detect strong media effects in terms of how
people thought about public affairs, but the question regarding attitudinal impact
remained largely unanswered. One reason for the lack of evidence on attitudinal influence
was the primary focus on attitude change. Over time though, scholars began to consider
the possibility that a major role of mass communication could be opinion formation and
attitude strength, which represents the focus of this study. And as noted above, shifting
the salience of issues can play a major part in how politicians are evaluated in public
opinion. Though not emphasized here, a logical next step is for future scholarship to probe
the behavioral outcomes of agenda-setting, and empirical research in this area is growing
(e.g., Kiousis and McDevitt, 2008; Roberts et al., 1994; Valenzuela and McCombs, 2007).
Research has suggested that a key association exists between agenda-setting and
attitude strength. Weaver (1991), for instance, found that increased public salience of the
federal budget deficit was correlated with stronger opinions about this issue and a

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diminished likelihood in taking a neutral position on it. Using a similar conceptualization,


Kiousis and McCombs (2004) found that media salience of general political figures was not
only positively related to increased public salience, but also to higher levels of attitude
dispersion (non-neutral attitude development) and attitude polarization (extreme attitude
development) concerning those figures. This confirms the association expected by
basic priming (McCombs and Reynolds, 2002). Finally, in a study of agenda-setting
and political socialization, Kiousis et al. (2005) explained that news media attention,
perceived issue salience, and opinion strength were all positively associated in a sample of
US adolescents.

Linking Salience and Attitude Strength


Although prior research has verified an empirical association between salience and
opinion strength (e.g., Weaver, 1984, 1991), it is essential to identify an explicit theoretical
framework accounting for this relationship because it traces the role of agenda-setting in
the broader process of communication, particularly persuasion. The theory of a hierarchy
of effects provides an appropriate conceptual background for establishing this linkage
(see Jeffres and Perloff, 1997 for an overview). The core proposition of the hierarchy
model is that communication/persuasion occurs through a series of stages where message
exposure generates changes in cognition, affect, and behavior (CAB), respectively
(Berelson, 1996; Lavidge and Steiner, 1961; Severin and Tankard, 2001).
Over the years, researchers have attempted to merge different formulations of the
CAB hierarchies into single theoretical frameworks (e.g., Barry, 2002; Chaffee and Roser,
1986; Ray, 1975). The relationship between salience and strength is often highlighted as an
integral part of the larger theoretical relationship between cognition and affect in such
scholarship (e.g., Chaffee and Roser, 1986). Applied to the current study, the CAB model
proposes that message dissemination would represent media salience, audience cognition
would represent perceived public salience, and audience affect would represent perceived
public attitude strength. Consequently, increased media attention to objects and their
attributes should lead to increases in perceived salience and opinion strength. In the
present investigation, the focus is on presidential candidates as objects.
In addition to these expectations, the hierarchy of effects also makes predictions
about the sequence of influence among variables. In the context of the current study, the
literature suggests two possible alternatives (Kiousis and McCombs, 2004). The first is that
media salience leads to increased public salience, which results in stronger attitudes, and
the second entails media salience prompting stronger attitudes, which translates into
higher public salience. Both sequences will be explored in the present inquiry.
The basic theorizing for probing the sequence of influence in this study draws
heavily from the Kiousis and McCombs (2004) analysis of political figures in 1996. Because
the relationship between agenda-setting and attitude strength regarding individuals as
objects has been underexplored, the present study serves as a replication and extension of
the aforementioned investigation by examining such associations for presidential
candidates with time-series data across multiple elections. As a result, the patterns
observed across both studies should shed light on the broader relationship between
agenda-setting and opinion strength concerning objects. On a broader level, replication
and extension of existing research represents an important strategy for theory building via
the scientific method (Finifter, 1975).

AGENDA-SETTING AND ATTITUDES

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Beyond the theory of a hierarchy of effects, the catastrophe theory of attitudes also
points towards a positive association between salience and opinion strength (e.g., Latane,
1996; Latane and Nowak, 1994, 1997). Liu and Latane (1998a) detected extensive support
for this linkage among a wide variety of political and personal issues in an experimental
analysis. Further, Van Der Maas et al. (2003) documented similar trends using both survey
and experimental data. When explicating this relationship, Liu and Latane declared that a
variety of theoretical processes at the individual, small group, and society level appear
consistent with the catastrophe view that the importance and extremity of attitudes
should be positively correlated, especially in the public domain (1998b, p. 109). Based on
the discussion above, the following hypotheses and research question are offered:
H1: Media salience of presidential candidates will be positively correlated with their
public salience, the proportion of the public who recognize these public figures.
H2: Media salience of presidential candidates will be positively correlated with the
proportion of the public who hold non-neutral (dispersed) attitudes about these
public figures.
H3: Media salience of presidential candidates will be positively correlated with the
proportion of the public who hold extreme (polarized positive and negative)
attitudes about those public figures.
RQ1: What sequence of influence will best explain the relationships among media
salience, public salience, and attitude strength regarding presidential candidates?

Methods
To explore the aforementioned relationships, media coverage and public opinion
data regarding presidential candidates from six US elections were utilized (1984, 1988,
1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004). The driving rationale behind the years selected was the
availability of public opinion data from the America National Election Studies (ANES) poll
that gauged salience and attitudes towards presidential candidates originating from the
same surveys.1 Media coverage and public opinion of the following candidates were
examined: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, Michael
Dukakis, Bob Dole, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore, and John Kerry.

Media Content Measures


The Lexis/Nexis and Factiva databases were chosen to gauge media attention. The
New York Times and Washington Post were employed to assess newspaper attention
(Dearing and Rogers, 1996). U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek were selected to
measure magazine attention (Benton and Frazier, 1976; Funkhouser, 1973). Although most
researchers only utilize single news sources, employing multiple indicators for measuring
communication content enhances reliability (Chaffee, 1991). An added benefit was the
opportunity for multiple replication tests of the proposed hypotheses.
Whenever scrutinizing media and public opinion patterns, pinpointing the proper
time-lag from which to locate relationships is critical (Chaffee, 1972). With agenda-setting
research showing time-lags ranging from a few days and weeks (e.g., Wanta and Roy,
1995) up to several months (e.g., Sohn, 1978; Stone and McCombs, 1981), a conservative
approach was taken in this study that encompassed a broad time frame. News articles

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were tracked from January to October of every year analyzed because elections were held
in early November and public opinion data were gleaned from post-election polls. This
helped establish time-order between the media content and public opinion indicators.

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Operational Measures of Media Content


Media salience was measured by the conventional agenda-setting indicator of story
frequency (Kiousis, 2004). Keyword searches identified the volume of media attention
dedicated to presidential candidates (Democratic and Republican). It should be noted that
only coverage of the eventual party nominee was recorded because the polls utilized only
monitored opinions of those candidates. The keywords used were president and the last
name of the candidates running for office during that election year. In total, the number of
stories examined (across outlets and years) was 32,244.

Public Opinion Measures


To measure public salience, name recognition of candidates was used*an indicator
that frequently has been employed to measure perceived salience in both academic and
political campaign research (see Cover and Brumberg, 1982 for discussion). Logically,
people must be able to recognize candidates in order to consider them salient. In other
words, name recognition is a necessary condition for and can serve as an indirect proxy of
salience when other options are unavailable. The NES items measuring attitudes toward
the political candidates were 100-point feeling thermometers.2 Research suggests that the
NES thermometer questions are valid indicators of name recognition (Kiousis, 2005; Mann
and Wolfinger, 1980). Thus, the proportion of survey respondents who did not recognize
the person about whom they were asked to give an opinion was subtracted from 100
percent to create the salience measure for each of the presidential candidates.
Consistent with Kiousis and McCombs (2004) operational measures of attitude
strength, two dimensions were tracked in this inquiry: attitude dispersion and attitude
polarization. Attitude dispersion was measured by the proportion of respondents who
reported non-neutral attitudes (i.e., anywhere on the scale except at the 50-point mark).
Attitude polarization was measured by summing the proportion of people falling at the
zero and 100-point ends of the scale.

Data Analysis Strategy


The research design allowed us to compare the media agenda of presidential
candidates with public opinion regarding these political figures. Spearmans rho
correlations were used to assess the relationships for H1H3, as has been the case in
most previous agenda-setting research (e.g., McCombs and Bell, 1996; McCombs and
Shaw, 1972). To test the sequence of influence among variables for answering RQ1, partial
correlations were employed (Rosenberg, 1968). Finally, it should be noted that the current
analysis was limited by the small number of data points included in the study, making
more advanced procedures for time-series designs, such as ARIMA, inappropriate.

AGENDA-SETTING AND ATTITUDES


TABLE 1
Frequency of media coverage of US presidential candidates (19802004)
Election

Political party

1984

Democrat
Republican
Democrat
Republican
Democrat
Republican
Democrat
Republican
Democrat
Republican
Democrat
Republican

1988
1992

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1996
2000
2004

New York
Times

Washington Post

U.S. News and


World Report

Newsweek

874
2929
334
725
564
2138
1931
598
1193
754
920
2658

539
2263
374
809
647
2148
2090
615
906
557
930
2437

153
463
51
96
71
179
188
83
89
80
95
191

78
225
38
57
81
171
146
65
98
99
45
99

Total number of news stories32,874.

Results
Prior to examining the hypotheses, Table 1 shows the distribution of media
coverage across the six presidential elections to provide a broader picture of the data. The
presidential candidate receiving the greatest amount of coverage was Ronald Reagan
during the 1984 campaign (5880 stories), while the candidate receiving the least attention
was Michael Dukakis during the 1988 campaign (797 stories). When each election is
considered individually, the highest volume of media coverage occurred in 1984 (7524
stories), while the lowest emerged in 1988 (2484 stories). Across all elections, The New York
Times and U.S. News & World Report published the most stories about presidential elections
among the four newspapers and magazines examined, respectively. When comparing the
candidates by party affiliation, Republican candidates were mentioned in a total of 20,439
stories, while Democratic candidates were mentioned in a total of 12,435 stories. To
ascertain whether the variations in media coverage were meaningfully linked to public
opinion, we now turn to the hypotheses.

Hypothesis Testing
H1 predicted that media salience of presidential candidates would be positively
associated with perceived public salience. The hypothesis was supported by the data. As
shown in Table 2, there are four replications of the analysis for each hypothesis, each
analysis based on the agenda of a single news outlet. Three out of the four possible
comparisons were statistically significant with the remaining one approaching significance. The median correlation value was 0.55, confirming the basic theoretical assertion of
agenda-setting that increased media salience is connected with increased public salience
(McCombs and Shaw, 1972). Though extensively corroborated for issue salience effects,
this is one of the few studies to observe this relationship for candidates at the level of
object salience.
H2 posited that media attention would be positively associated with attitude
dispersion. The hypothesis was supported in three out of four cases. The median

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TABLE 2
Correlations between media coverage and public opinion of presidential candidates
Media outlet

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New York Times (N 15,168)


Washington Post (N 14,135)
U.S. News and World Report (N 1739)
Newsweek (N 1202)

Salience1
0.52*
0.58*
0.32
0.85***

Dispersion2
0.55*
0.56*
0.32
0.53*

Polarization3
0.60*
0.80***
0.63*
0.46$

Total number of news stories32,244.


$p B0.10, *p B0.05, **p B0.01.
Note: Public opinion data are based on National Election Studies questions asking respondents to
rate presidential candidates on a 100-point thermometer scale. The candidates were Jimmy Carter,
Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole, Bill Clinton,
George W. Bush, Al Gore, and John Kerry.
1
Salience refers to the extent to which people recognize the political figures they are being
questioned about. These data are converted from the amount of people who dont recognize the
public figures they are being questioned about. Higher correlations indicate that as media coverage
rises, more people recognize the public figures.
2
Dispersion refers to the extent to which public opinion moves away from non-neutral positions
about political figures. Specifically, higher correlations mean as media coverage rises, more people
are moving away from the 50 percent category of the thermometer scales.
3
Polarization refers to the extent that public opinion moves to the far ends of the 100-point scale.
Specifically, it is the summed amount of people at the 0 and 100 points on the scale. Higher
correlations indicate that as media coverage rises, more people are holding polarized positions
about public figures.

correlation coefficient was 0.54. This substantiates the connection between media salience
of objects and the holding of opinions about those objects, evidence supporting the
concept of basic priming (McCombs and Reynolds, 2002).
H3 predicted an association between media salience and attitude polarization. The
hypothesis was supported for all four comparisons. The median correlation coefficient was
0.62, revealing that media salience was also related to the development of strongly held
views. In total, the replication of findings across media outlets proposes that noteworthy
associations exist among news content, perceived public salience, and public attitude
strength regarding presidential candidates.
RQ1 addressed what sequence of influence would best explain the relationships
among media salience, public salience, and attitude strength. Specifically, we compared
whether public salience mediated the relationship between media salience and attitude
strength or whether attitude strength mediated the relationship between media salience
and public salience. The first model represents the traditional hierarchy of effects
sequence of media exposure leading to cognitive shifts, which then results in attitudinal
impact. The second model represents an alternative sequence with media exposure
leading to affective changes, which then results in cognitive shifts. In the first example, if
partial correlations decreased the value of the observed bivariate correlations between
media salience and attitude strength to approximately zero, this would offer evidence that
media salience leads to an increase in public salience, which subsequently strengthens
attitudes towards presidential candidates.
Table 3 reports the partial correlation values. Collectively, the data offer slightly more
evidence suggesting that media salience leads to increased attitude strength, which in
turn raises public salience.

AGENDA-SETTING AND ATTITUDES


TABLE 3
Partial correlations between media coverage and public opinion of presidential candidates

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Media outlet

New York Times


(N 15,168)
Washington Post
(N 14,135)
U.S. News and
World Report
(N 1739)
Newsweek
(N 1202)

Media salience
0Dispersion0
Public salience

Media salience Media salience 0 Media salience 0


0Polarization0 Public salience0 Public salience0
Public salience
Dispersion
Polarization

0.24

0.30

0.32

0.44$

0.33

0.31

0.29

0.72**

0.16

-0.01

0.14

0.57*

0.78**

0.80**

0.07

0.05

Total number of news stories32,244.


$p B 0.10, *p B 0.05, **p B 0.01.
See Table 2 footnotes for further information.

In particular, six out of eight partial correlation values are not significantly different
from zero after controlling for the two dimensions of attitude strength (attitude dispersion
and polarization). In comparison, five out of eight partial correlation values are not
significantly different from zero for the traditional hierarchy of effects model.

Discussion
To recap, this study suggests that increased media attention towards objects in
the news is positively associated with public salience and attitude strength. Two of the
more critical attitudinal outcomes include attitude dispersion and polarization. The linkage
between media coverage and public salience of candidates is also striking because*
despite agenda-setting theorys long history*few investigations have directly observed
this relationship. This inquiry verifies that finding empirically and shows that the object
metaphor is indeed appropriate for conceptualizing the dynamics of agenda-setting
beyond issue salience. The study also sheds light on the sequence of influence among
variables by suggesting that media salience prompts increases in attitude strength, which
subsequently translates into elevated public salience regarding presidential candidates.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that the results concerning the sequence of influence
should be viewed as tentative given the small sample size and the minimal difference in
patterns between the two sets of comparisons. As noted above though, one unique
feature of this study is its replication and extension of Kiousis and McCombs (2004) study
of political figures in 1996. Given that similar patterns regarding the sequence of influence
among variables emerged, the collective evidence suggests that media salience of political
figures as objects prompts shifts in opinion strength, which subsequently results in
changes in public salience. The replication of this sequence should be tested with other
object types and in other political contexts. Furthermore, future research should control
for additional external variables with a larger sample using more complex statistical tests
such as path analysis or time-series regressions to explore the robustness of these findings.
Overall, the data indicated that as media attention galvanized, the level of opinion
holding grew. The outcome of attitude dispersion is paramount to future research on mass

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media and public opinion because it helps reconcile the notion of active audiences with a
stable attitudinal outcome. That is, media, in this view, help people cast and form stronger
attitudes about political candidates, but not the same attitudes and opinions for everyone.
Beyond dispersion, the data also revealed that perceptions of polarized attitudes are
connected to changes in media coverage. In general, the detected relationships with
dispersion and polarization extend prior research on agenda-setting and attitude strength
by showing the existence of such associations with longitudinal data and with objects
other than issues.
Although positive relationships were observed among media salience, public
salience, and attitude strength, some noteworthy differences emerged when comparing
linkages with newspapers and magazines. Specifically, the majority of cases when the
hypotheses were not supported was with magazines rather than newspapers. Some
possible explanations for this pattern are that the smaller volume of magazine stories
played a role or that the range of content in magazines may be reflective of more
specialized agendas than general newspaper coverage. Future research should explore
such questions by incorporating television and online news content into analyses.
While the empirical linkage between salience and attitude strength is crucial, the
theoretical implications of it also merit attention. Conceptualizing agenda-setting within the theory of a hierarchy of effects (Kiousis and McCombs, 2004) and the catastrophe
theory of attitudes offer valuable theoretical maps for elucidating a relationship that
previously has only been observed empirically. Future research on the sequence of
influence among media salience, public salience, and attitude strength is also warranted in
light of the findings from this inquiry. Continued explication of elements from these
scholarly perspectives is central to better understanding the relationship between agendasetting and attitudes. A natural progression in this studys model, of course, would be to
examine the linkages between agenda-setting and behavior, which might include voting
and other indicators of participation, such as volunteering, attending town hall meetings,
or making donations. Thus, this research can help trace the role of agenda-setting in
broader democratic and civic participation processes.
The relationship between agenda-setting and attitude strength also provides
empirical support for the notion of basic priming (McCombs and Reynolds, 2002). Testing
this relationship with other objects in the news would help assess its application in other
contexts. For example, building on prior scholarship, the extent to which media salience of
organizations, products, and foreign nations is linked with opinion formation and
expression offers a fruitful testing ground for this concept. As such, it may have
applications outside political communication contexts.

Limitation and Conclusions


Despite its implications, this study is not without its limitations. For example, the
time-frame for our study should make us cautious regarding any generalizations outside of
the period explored. On the other hand, we can have some confidence because timeseries data are thought to be more generalizible than cross-sectional data (Gozenbach and
McGavin, 1997). Further, the use of different media outlets offered the opportunity for
repeated replication tests of the various hypotheses. Although the actual number of years
is small, the data underlying this study are based on thousands of news stories and survey
respondents. Finally, the use of correlational data greatly restricts our ability to make

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AGENDA-SETTING AND ATTITUDES

causal assertions among our variables. Nonetheless, it is consistent with the approach
used in other agenda-setting scholarship (e.g., Golan et al., 2007), yet we suggest more
sophisticated data analytic approaches in future research when larger data samples are
available.
In total, this study suggests that there seems to be some consistent attitudinal
outcomes linked to the agenda-setting process. By weaving together tenets from agendasetting, attitude strength, the theory of a hierarchy of effects, and the catastrophe theory
of attitudes, our conceptual model holds potential for evaluating how media salience
towards objects in the news is related to public attitudes. Based on these results, the
associations between attribute salience and opinion strength also deserve further
attention. Extending the present investigation, research might examine how media and
public perceptions of political candidate attributes are connected to attitude dispersion
and polarization concerning those candidates. News coverage of debates may be ideally
suited for such analyses.
The emergence of attitude dispersion as an important media effect was also
suggested in this study. In the low salience context of politics that dominates the US
political scene, this is an important political role. Its contribution to the literature is
noteworthy because it is one of the only studies, other than the priming literature, to
connect agenda-setting with a consistent attitudinal outcome. Continuing this line of
research could prove helpful in enhancing our knowledge of the antecedents, processes,
and consequences of mass media on public salience and attitudes. It is hoped the current
project can serve as springboard for future research in these areas.

NOTES
1.

Warren E. Miller and the National Election Studies. NATIONAL ELECTION STUDIES, 1984:
PRE-/POST-ELECTION STUDY [dataset]. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Center for
Political Studies [producer and distributor], 1999. These materials are based on work
supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Numbers: SBR-9707741,
SBR-9317631, SES-9209410, SES-9009379, SES-8808361, SES-8341310, SES-8207580, and
SOC77-08885. Warren E. Miller and the National Election Studies. NATIONAL ELECTION
STUDIES, 1988: PRE-/POST-ELECTION STUDY [dataset]. Ann Arbor, MI: University of
Michigan, Center for Political Studies [producer and distributor], 1999. These materials are
based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Numbers:
SBR-9707741, SBR-9317631, SES-9209410, SES-9009379, SES-8808361, SES-8341310,
SES-8207580, and SOC77-08885. Warren E. Miller, Donald R. Kinder, Steven J. Rosenstone,
and the National Election Studies. NATIONAL ELECTION STUDIES, 1992: PRE-/POSTELECTION STUDY [dataset]. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Center for Political
Studies [producer and distributor], 1999. These materials are based on work supported
by the National Science Foundation under Grant Numbers: SBR-9707741, SBR-9317631,
SES-9209410, SES-9009379, SES-8808361, SES-8341310, SES-8207580, and SOC77-08885.
The National Election Studies (www.electionstudies.org). THE 1996 NATIONAL ELECTION
STUDY [dataset]. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Center for Political Studies
[producer and distributor]. These materials are based on work supported by, in
alphabetical order: the National Science Foundation under grant SBR-9317631, and the
University of Michigan. The National Election Studies (www.electionstudies.org). THE
2000 NATIONAL ELECTION STUDY [dataset]. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Center

369

370

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2.

for Political Studies [producer and distributor]. These materials are based on work
supported by, in alphabetical order: the National Science Foundation under grant
SES-9707741, the Russell Sage Foundation under grant 82-00-01, and the University of
Michigan. The National Election Studies (www.electionstudies.org). THE 2004 NATIONAL
ELECTION STUDY [dataset]. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Center for Political
Studies [producer and distributor]. These materials are based on work supported by, in
alphabetical order: the National Science Foundation under grant SES-0118451, and the
University of Michigan. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations
expressed in these materials are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the
views of the funding organizations.
The exact question asks: We would like to get your feelings toward some of these
people. Ill read the name of each person and Id like you to rate that person with what
we call a feeling thermometer. Ratings between 50 and 100 degrees mean that you feel
favorably and warm toward the person, ratings between 0 and 50 degrees mean that you
dont feel favorably towards the person and that you dont care too much for that
person. If you dont feel particularly warm or cold toward a person you would rate them
at 50 degrees. If we come to a person you dont know much about, just tell me and well
move on to the next one. A dont know response is also available to respondents. The
dont know item includes a probe asking respondents to clarify if their dont know
means that they dont recognize the candidate or if it means they dont know where to
rate him.

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Spiro Kiousis, 2087 Weimer Hall, Department of Public Relations, College of Journalism
and Communications, PO Box 118400, Gainesville, FL 32611-8400, USA. E-mail:
skiousis@jou.ufl.edu