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A changing agenda?

We all like to be in the know. But what does being in the know actually mean? The news is so heavily regulated, so massively controlled, that being in the know has become almost paradoxical. Here’s a looks at agenda-setting in the media, and what social media convergence means for the future of how we digest our news.

The comedian Stewart Lee, the most unapologetic and erudite of stand-ups, tells a joke about being in a Spanish bar in the immediate aftermath an attack on two buildings in America. “Where’s that?” – “¿Donde esta?”, in Spanish – he asks the barman, as the horror begins to unfold on screen. “Nueva York”, he replies. “Oh it’s probably just somewhere in Colombia, doesn’t really matter.” But then, of course, he realises the events on the television are happening in New York, where English-speaking people live and, thus, are a terrible newsworthy tragedy.

Despite the obvious facetiousness of the joke, Lee was making a valid point. A few weeks ago, when the New Zealand mine exploded and 29 people tragically lost their lives, the Scottish papers focused solely on the two Scots who were killed. “Pete Rodger, 40, from Perthshire, and Malcolm Campbell, 25, from St Andrews, Fife, were among the men missing following Friday’s initial blast at Pike River mine in Atarau on South Island.” wrote The Herald.

In a recent lecture I attended, Jon Snow talked about being in Haiti after the earthquake. “We were on a boat and people were shouting to us to come and help.” he said, “And then we found a UN translator who spoke English to us, and that’s when the awfulness of it all hit home.”

The point I make here is the news tells us what’s important to us. If it’s not in the news, you won’t hear about it. We, as the reader, can’t control what the newspapers print. Then, it seems, neither can they: “Press releases are issued to everyone at the same time, everyone is invited to the same photocall and contributors are briefed to say the same thing to every outlet. It becomes very difficult to put your own stamp on something like that, because you end up with identical pictures and sound to everyone else.”, says Keith Wallace, a journalist at the BBC.

When Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw introuced the world to agenda-setting theory in 1968, it caused something of a furore. The idea that the media, the reliable source of day-to-day world events, might have an agenda on top of their political affiliations finally provided an explanation as to why people prioritize the same issues as important. In the English-speaking world, it’s English-speaking events that carry the gravitas to make the front pages. The crux of agenda-setting is salience transfer – the ability of the news media to transfer the most important issues from news agendas to public agendas. Propaganda, in a sense. Beyond attitudes and opinions, the pictures of reality created by the mass media have implications for personal behaviors, ranging from university applications to voting on election day.

However, McCombs argues that there’s nothing malicious about agenda-setting: “It should be noted that the use of term “agenda” here is purely descriptive. There is no pejorative implication that a news organization “has an agenda” that it relentlessly pursues as a premeditated goal. The media agenda presented to the public results from countless day-to-day decisions by many different journalists and their supervisors about the news of the moment.” he writes.

Yet there is a reluctance amongst journalists to act like this: “After all, each journalist wants authorship of his own story, and not just to be churning out the same old copy being churned out in offices elsewhere. Nobody really just wants to flip newsburgers for a living.” Wallace tells me. “But the media does act as a pack.”

Nick Davies, one of the investigative journalists behind the Jonathan Aitken exposé, released a book last year, which broke perhaps the most important of unwritten Fleet Street rules – he investigated his own colleagues. Depite this, Flat Earth News was greeted with considerable praise from within the industry. The Observer called it “Powerful and timely”, lauding the meticulousness of his research. Yet it was The Observer at the centre of one of the most controversial examples of angeda setting.

In 2002, the paper’s US Correspondent, Ed Vulliamy filed a story not once, but seven times, which had a former CIA intelligence analyist, Mel Goodman, on record declaring that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. In Goodman’s words, the Bush administration based “the case for war against Iraq on a shoot-the-messenger syndrome, ignoring the assessments by CIA analysts which did not support the case for war, and instead establishing intelligence cadres made up of political appointees who will tell the President what he wants to hear.”

So why, then, did The Observer not print this? This a paper that has traditionally placed it self left of centre and opposed previous invasions. They actually declared their support for the war. “They were seduced into accepting unproven and extravagent claims; this flagship of the left was towed along in the wake of a determindly right-wing American government; the essential role of journalism, to tell the truth, was compromised.” argues Davies.

Yet on more domestic issues, the papers are much quicker to editorialise. The Guardian recently ran a story on the fact that Murdoch’s visited to Number 10, just after Cameron had moved in, was not documented in either The Times or The Sun, both of which are owned by Murdoch’s Newscorp. So it’s less an argument about opinion, and more about what is news itself. “The front page headlines might be quite similar, but the leader columns are very different.” Wallace says.

A case in point has been the Wikileaks release of some 250,000 diplomatic cables. Whichever paper you read, the news has been simply unavoidable. For good reason, too. It is important, but it’s made more important by the extent to which it’s been reported. A friend told me he expects Julian Assange’s body to be found hanging in an underground bunker somewhere, or washed up on an uninhabited island. That he has been afforded so much coverage, despite the fact Wikileaks is run by many more people than Assange, has lead to him being arrested for a sex crime, supposedly commited over a year ago.

That’s not to say it has been reported in the same way everywhere, and one can speculate on the reason why. Robert Beers, a lecturer in jouranlism, media and communications at the University of Central Lancashire, said: “Wikileaks has been trounced by the more conservative papers but the Guardian and Independent have some writers who are quite pleased with the open distribution of the cables in question.” A Robert Fisk article in The Independent, entitled “Wikileaks and the shaming of America” very much confirms this view. Contrast this with The Telegraph’s Bennedict Brogan’s column “Wikileaks is embarassing – but not serious” and the split becommes even more apparent. The mere fact, however, that it has been so widely reported demonstrates McCombs idea that Wikileaks is the agenda of the moment.

Yet the papers have agendas within agendas – something that can be attributed to Noelle-Nueman’s `spiral of silence’. That is, the idea that voicing an opinon opposite to the popular one, within one’s social domain, can lead to isolation. That Wikileaks has received such condemnation from the right is hardly a surprise. The leftist papers’ apparent ambivalence will inevitably raise more eyebrows.

You can follow Neal Wallace on Twitter @nealjwallace