Sunday, August 22, 2010

Agenda-Setting in the Digital Age: The Case of Proposition 8...

The question as to how issues make it onto the national political agenda, and why others do not, is one that academics have been theorizing about for years. To what extent does the media shape public opinion and mobilize popular support for specific issues? Traditional media certainly plays an important role in shaping political agendas, but how is social media on the internet now altering that dynamic?

This can go in several directions. Either 1) traditional news outlets remain the primary catalyst, leading the way for online social media to follow; 2) the reverse is true and online social media is leading the way for traditional new outlets to follow; or 3) "communication is a process" and they mutually influence each other in highly complex arrangements.

Somewhat predictably, a recent academic paper argues for the third option of complexity. Titled, "Agenda Setting in a Digital Age: Tracking Attention to California Proposition 8 in Social Media, Online News and Conventional News" (Sayre, Ben; Bode, Leticia; Shah, Dhavan; Wilcox, Dave; and Shah, Chirag), in the Policy & Internet journal, the authors conducted a case study using the Proposition 8 issue in California to see whether traditional news outlets led the way, or whether online social media - specifically, YouTube - acted as the primary catalyst for subsequent coverage.

What they found was a direct correlation that showed traditional newspapers in California clearly leading both YouTube and Google News coverage of the issue. In other words, newspapers would first report on it, then online media would react. This is an important result in its own right, however, complicating the data is the significance of timing. As the authors responsibly acknowledge, traditional news outlets clearly led the way before the November 2008 election, but afterwards, and especially during the period surrounding the 2009 California Supreme Court decision, YouTube videos were clearly a much better predictor of both newspapers and Google news coverage.

What does this mean? Basically, since the number of YouTube videos actually increased in the aftermath of the election, while the newspapers' attention to the issue faded, the authors conclude that YouTube was being used as a platform for people to register opinions that they felt were not being represented in the mainstream. Indeed, it was opponents of Proposition 8 who accounted for nearly all of the activity on YouTube following the election. The lesson of social media in the Prop 8 case, then, is that people strongly identify with, and become more active in expressing, a minority position when that cause’s prospects take a turn for the worse.

Thus, traditional news outlets continue to be the primary catalyst for agenda-setting, while online social media serves better as a protest platform; or venue for expressing contrarian perspectives.

Agenda-setting is important because it not only dictates how readers learn about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position. Online social media is clearly a part of this modern equation, but it hasn't usurped the influence of traditional news outlets just yet.


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