in Analysis

Framing, second-level agenda setting, and what am I thinking?!?

The debate on whether or not framing and second-level agenda setting are the same remains unresolved. I should not have been surprised therefore when it became one of the questions I was asked in my doctoral comprehensive exam.

The following version comes from my first exam—one of the four questions I had to answer for my mass communication theory test. I was asked this question: Are framing and second-level agenda setting different from each other? I argued they are different, but one of my committee members thought differently, too.

What do you think?

Now, if I got anything wrong, please consider I was writing this from memory (away from my books and notes), within a four-hour deadline (I was to answer three more questions), and without immediate access to donuts, chocolates, or pad thai that could have inspired me to do much better.

Snowmageddon 2.0


The agenda-setting theory refers to how public’s exposure to news about an issue increases the salience of that issue to that public. It began after McCombs & Shaw (1972) found in a survey of still undecided voters in Chapel Hill, North Carolina how media agenda was related to public agenda, supporting the agenda-setting theory instead of the selective exposure hypothesis. In particular, they found that general media agenda had a much stronger correlation with public agenda compared with the agenda by each news medium, or even to the agenda by the political party that members of the public support.

Three important concepts need to be defined: media agenda, public agenda and “public.” First, McCombs and Shaw (1972) measured media agenda in Chapel Hill during an election using content analysis of the news published or aired by several news media. Though they also compared the agenda of each of the news media, no news article is considered to have an agenda. Thus, agenda refers to an accumulation of articles that refer to an issue. The repetition and consistent prominence attached to an issue elevate it higher into the media agenda. Thus, media agenda is cumulative. Second, public agenda referred to the public’s perceived salience of issues. Salience among media users was measured in a survey. McCombs and Shaw (1972) asked respondents to rank what they thought were the most important issues. Finally, focusing on public agenda instead of studying the agenda of audiences or media users carries the assumption of what constitutes a public. Scholars have differentiated the public from the audience, in such a way that members of the public are thought to be responsible citizens exercising their social roles (e.g. Papacharissi, 2009; Ettema et. al, 1994). This is appropriate for the original agenda-setting study as McCombs and Shaw (1972) surveyed voters. In summary, the agenda-setting theory argues that while the media cannot dictate what people think, they are particularly good at shaping what people think about (Valenzuela & McCombs, 2011). Subsequent studies that tested agenda-setting, however, found no explanation from the theory for how people thought about the issues presented to them.

When people believe an issue is important, they also have ideas why these issues are important. They also have evaluations of actors associated with these issues. Thus, McCombs later coined second-level agenda setting as an explanation to these evaluations. While first-level agenda setting is about importance of issues, second-level agenda setting is about evaluation and interpretation. However, many scholars correctly pointed out that second-level agenda setting sounded very much like framing.

Framing also talks about the concept of salience. Entman (1993) described framing as “to make aspects of a perceived reality more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (p. 52). But framing effects are different from agenda-setting effects (Tewksbury & Scheufele, 2009). Framing is “what unifies information into a package that can influence audiences” (Tewkbury & Scheufele, 2009, p. 19). It is about interpretation. This focus on how a text is interpreted is similar to second-level agenda setting.

Framing, however, is different from agenda-setting. From the point of view of message construction, agenda-setting is cumulative. A news article does not provide an agenda, but placed within the context of previous and future similar stories across different media, it might elevate an issue into the media agenda. In contrast, individual messages contain frames. For instance, journalists cannot choose not to frame their news articles (Stromback & Luego, 2010). Thus, a media agenda, derived from a cumulation of messages each containing frames, can include multiple and even conflicting frames.

In terms of message processing, agenda-setting is an accessibility effect (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). Exposure to the media increases the accessibility of an issue in one’s mind. A way to operationalize agenda-setting effect is to ask individuals to list what they believe are the most important issues, which are conceptually the issues that are most accessible, or what they are thinking about. In contrast, framing effect is an applicability effect (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). Exposure is not enough for framing effects. Attention to the media is important. Attention to frames in messages provide individuals with information that they can connect to those stored in their memory networks—persons, objects, ideas they had prior experience with and have value judgments of. Connecting new information with the old brings about interpretation—the point when framing takes place. Thus, a way to operationalize framing effect is to ask individuals how they perceive an issue; for example, asking why climate change is important. An answer that says climate change is important because of the economic problems it brings about is usually considered an economic framing, or linking climate change with economic evaluations. This is how an individual thinks about climate change.

Framing and second-level agenda setting are explained by very similar processes. Some scholars would even argue that second-level agenda setting is framing, that it was just coined to strengthen the original agenda-setting theory. I would argue, however, that despite the same processing mechanism that underlies them, framing and second-level agenda setting remain distinct, if we keep the conceptualization of second-level agenda setting faithful to and consistent with the original agenda-setting theory. A difference is how framing effects talk about the interpretation of a message, as each message contains frames and triggers frames in the minds of those who process them; while second-level agenda setting is supposed to be explaining how people interpret particular agenda, which do not stem from a single message, but from the accumulation of messages. Indeed, when individuals believe an issue is the most important, they also have their interpretations of that issue, or what is the most salient consideration within that issue. A media agenda contains multiple, sometimes even conflicting, frames. When individuals think of an important issue, they also think of it through the lens of particular frames—evaluations and interpretations—that have resonated from previous attention to individual articles that repeated, highlighted, and contributed to the issue occupying a place in the public agenda.  In interpreting each message about an issue (messages that contributed to its place in the overall agenda), individuals frame each message in particular ways through the process of applicability. Repeated exposure to the same issue in subsequent messages, no matter how they are framed, makes previous frames not only applicable, but also accessible. Thus, as an issue becomes more and more accessible (and thus part of the agenda), frames applicable to that issue, or the ways an individual has consistently evaluated and interpreted the issue (based on prior experience, personal interest, among others), also become more and more accessible. Thus, second-level agenda setting remains to be an accessibility effect, consistent and faithful with the first-level agenda setting, and distinct but related to framing effects.


The comprehensive examination at the Missouri School of Journalism is a nerve-racking but fun process. For several weeks I had to read about 100 journal articles, book chapters, and books from five subject areas. These reading lists were developed in consultation with my dissertation committee members.

Then, for five days spread in just two weeks, I had to take five four-hour closed-door, closed-book, no-internet, no-contact-with-the-outside-world exams, with just me, an old PC provided by the department, and a few sheets of scratch paper inside the window-less room. You never get to know the exact exam question until that day you are locked into that room.

Now that I have successfully defended my comps—yes, we also have an oral defense for the comprehensive exams—I am uploading some of my answers. 

Write a Comment