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Television loves sagas in which someone wins and someone loses. It abhors long, tedious, complex stories and will usually ignore them if possible. News media are instrumental to the perceived salience of a particular social problem. Indeed, researchers view the policy agenda as the outcome of media influence on the public. As another communications scholar sees it, the media set the public agenda which, in turn, sets the policymaker agenda. Experimental research over the last decade has demonstrated that even brief exposure to media coverage of a particular issue will increase public assessment of that issue’s importance. News media have the ability to place a high priority on issues that may, in fact, not be as important as others. Conversely, those issues that get relatively little media attention are unlikely to figure among the most important problems facing the nation. This essentially casts news media in the role of democracy’s unelected gatekeepers. If a social problem does not conform to the needs and conventions of journalism, it is unlikely to get told and sold to the public. For example, in decrying “parachute journalism”—the media’s tendency to move rapidly from crisis to crisis.

Foundations that labor to publish fact books without making parallel investments in translating these facts into public discourse ignore the function that the news media provide in the national public square, refining and rationalizing the country’s “to do” list. But what about those issues where people have first-hand experience? Are we still so susceptible to the media’s influence? In fact, the evidence suggests that familiarity with an issue may make people more media attentive to that issue, and therefore more influenced by media coverage, not less. People are not so passive. People are not so dumb, and people negotiate with media messages in complicated ways that vary from issue to issue.

Ironically, news media maybe even more influential on policy elites than on the public. The lack of contact between policy elites and the general public may make the former all the more reliant upon the media as a proxy for public opinion. In a study of the actual impact of what he termed “icons of outrage,” or those famous photos widely credited with having had an impact on foreign policy attitudes among the public. In other words, highly news attentive people, such as public officials, assumed that the images being broadly distributed by the media affected others in precisely the same way and to the same degree that the images affected them. This was not always the case. But, regardless of actual public opinion. The attention to volume and placement of media coverage that is the focus of agenda-setting does not tell the whole story about the influence of communications on public opinion. The type of story that is told by the news media also powerfully affects the public’s understanding of social issues. The media’s influence on how we think about social problems lasts far beyond our memory of a particular newscast or news topic.

The way the news is “framed” on many issues sets up habits of thought and expectation that, over time, are so powerful that they serve to configure new information to conform to this frame. Framing refers to the way a story is told—its selective use of particular symbols, metaphors, and messengers, for example—and to the way, these cues, in turn, trigger the shared and durable cultural models that people use to make sense of their world. The frame is the organizing principle, what a story is “about,” supported by the frame elements of messenger, metaphor, etc., which combine to support the overall idea. Understanding which frames serves to advance which policy options with which groups are central to communications strategy. Framing choices in news are also evident when issues like unemployment, homelessness, or lack of health insurance are portrayed as individual choices or misfortunes, focusing tightly on the individual impacts of social and political forces, and not on the broader conditions that shape and constrain those choices. These narrative decisions have consequences for public thinking, as they tend to place responsibility on the individuals experiencing the problem, rather than on public policies.


Sparrows by morning, live in peaceful nests! Design shouldn’t dominate things, shouldn’t dominate people. It should help people. Don’t spend your time solving your favorite problems, solve problems that need to be solved, generically. A home is a place where you live, and society is a place where your story begins. Honesty shares honesty, as it is honesty’s nature. Stay always in Ablution and get back to the trust you have been, with.

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