Story by Nikki Kesaris

Don Shaw

Photo by Assistant Professor Jesse Abdenour

Agenda setting is a theory that’s been around for more than half a century. And Donald Shaw, professor emeritus in the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism, has been there from the beginning. He is one of the two “founding fathers” of the agenda-setting tradition of research during his 50 years as a media researcher.

In short, agenda setting refers to the influence that media has over the agendas of public figures and institutions. Media has always had the power to influence society, but that power has grown and morphed considerably in the past decade, especially with the advent of social media. When Shaw noticed that agenda setting was changing along with the media industry in the digital age, he coined a new term to describe what he was seeing: agenda melding.

Shaw recently visited the UO School of Journalism and Communication to share his ideas about how individuals and groups participate in agenda melding, which is the idea that people tend to join groups based on their common agendas.

“Media agenda setting is about how media tell society what to think about, although not what to think,” Shaw said. “Agenda melding is about how people use agendas themselves.”

According to Shaw, social media has made it much easier for people to agenda meld than traditional media ever did. For instance, research has found that many news consumers consult only sources that support their political biases and follow individuals on social media who share their interests. As a result, people tend to consume media in an echo chamber, rarely hearing opinions that differ from their own. And as media use fragments along political and other lines, society, in some ways, is reshaped as well.

Shaw said that people typically get trapped within their own views and opinions when they choose to follow accounts that fit their own tastes rather than ones that provide alternative views. That’s why it’s important to get news from sources beyond your social media feed. 

“People have their own personal views, history and attitudes, which are important as to how they interpret information,” said Shaw. “Agenda melding recognizes how we now have two sources of information about life. The first is traditional media, such as newspaper, magazine, television, radio, etc. The second one is social media: Twitter, Facebook and other media that represent context with an extended community of friends, and in some cases, many people you don’t know. We mix these together in a picture of the world that is comfortable.”

Combining these two types of media outlets is an important way for people to understand information and create ideas and opinions of civic and personal community, says Shaw. It’s all about how people take those views and integrate them into everyday life.

Nikki Kesaris is a junior studying public relations at the SOJC. This is her second year writing for the SOJC Communication Office. She also previously held an internship at a San Diego advertising agency before she realized that PR is her true calling.