Standing on the Edge of the World
Although the term “public opinion” has primarily been paired with politics over these past weeks, I tend to enter the conversation through the machinations of celebrity; if fame represents the phenomenon in question (i.e., the “what”), then Walter Lippman provides a “how” while Walter Benjamin chimes in with a “why.” The explanations of Lippman and Benjamin, are, of course, not the only ways in which one might endeavor to explain complex phenomenon of things like celebrity or political attitudes, but, for me, they represent a way.
In “How the News Shapes Our Civic Agenda” Maxwell McCombs and Amy Renyolds mention how Lippman’s seminal work Public Opinion outlines some of the ideas of what would later be called agenda-setting theory (generally, the idea that the relative attention given to articles by the mass media is correlated with the relative importance of those articles’ content by audiences) but this model, although likely valid, seems incomplete as it forwards a passive and reactionary position on behalf of audiences—although agenda-setting may certainly represent an influence on salience, it seems unlikely to represent the only factor at work.
Indirectly, agenda-setting speaks to some of the ways in which audiences can work to inscribe particular things (be they news items or celebrities) but here, the work of Benjamin sheds some light on why researchers may have observed the patterns that they did with regard to agenda-setting theory. Although admittedly more complex than is outlined here, one of the arguments made in Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is society’s rationalization that, in a world with limited resources, replicated images are worth reproducing. Applying this concept to news media, which also suffers its own set of constraints (e.g., space in print media or time in broadcast media), we understand that particular items are not only newsworthy because of the focus placed upon them, but also because they are covered at the expense of other things which were not mentioned.
But here I would suggest that the mere amount of exposure cannot fully account for the totality of the effects observed. Recalling earlier class discussions on the nature of advertising, it seems fair to argue that the messages put forth by outside agencies like news media outlets must be rendered meaningful by individuals and be available for recall. In order to support this notion (and introducing a bit of Social Psychology), we might refer to Vincent Price, David Tewksbury, and Elizabeth Powers’ concept of the “knowledge store,” which is itself reminiscent of the availability heuristic (i.e, the mental shortcut that describes the process whereby we assign additional importance to information that we can most readily recall, creating a correlation between memorable qualities and importance). What Price, Tewksbury, and Powers suggest is that it is not enough merely to have representation, but that these representations must be vivid and able to be recalled by individuals in order to have an effect. While one might be tempted to relegate this finding to sensationalist media, I believe that the work of Price, Tewksbury, and Powers also helps us to explain the processes described in agenda-setting theory.