LAWRENCE — An old adage in journalism research holds that the media can’t tell you what to think, but it can tell you what to think about. A first-of-its-kind study from the University of Kansas shows that despite a rapidly changing media landscape and ever-increasing globalization, factors that affect how people view media and important topics differ widely from country to country.
Agenda-setting theory has studied how media influence what people think about and how they view media since the early 1970s. The KU study, however, moved beyond studying a single country and conducted a big-data analysis of agenda-setting in 16 nations on five continents. They found that numerous factors contribute to how much people are influenced by media and how they view it.
“The central idea was that the effect journalism has on the public is a product of culture, economy and similar factors in a nation,” said Hong Tien Vu, assistant professor of journalism at KU. “Our findings provide empirical evidence that individual factors, such as age, education, living area and political ideology, and national macrovariables, including economic development and media freedom, are associated with the strength of such effects.”
The study, co-authored with Peter Bobkowski, associate professor of journalism, and doctoral student Liefu Jiang, both at KU, is forthcoming in the journal International Communications Gazette.
The authors used survey data collected by the International Social Survey Programme, which collected data from 33 countries. The authors used data from 16 of the countries chosen because they are geographically, economically and politically diverse: Argentina, Austria, Canada, Chile, Taiwan, Germany, Israel, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States. The authors worked with researchers who are either native speakers or fluent in the languages of each of the 16 countries and analyzed nearly 80,000 articles from 31 major newspapers across the countries.
The articles were scanned using a computer-assisted program to analyze how frequently words in public affairs categories were used. Those results were compared to the survey data in which respondents rated the importance of certain issues in their country, including health care, education, crime, the environment, immigration, the economy, terrorism and poverty, or “none of these” or “can’t choose.”
Scanning results showed which issues the newspapers covered most often, or the most salient media agenda. Analysis showed economy was the most salient media issue in 11 nations, crime the most salient in three, while health and education were most important in one each. Terrorism was the least salient issue in seven countries’ respective media, poverty least prominent in five, immigration least pressing in two and environment least salient in two as well.
The media agendas showed moderately high correlation with the issues the public deemed most important; however, only six nations showed statistically significant relationships between media and public agendas, including South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Philippines, Mexico and Chile. Results were analyzed on both a national and individual level and showed that four of five individual demographics — age, education, living area and political ideology — predicted how distant people were from media agendas. Younger, more educated and politically liberal individuals were all less likely to be as influenced by media agenda. Residents of big cities were more influenced by media agenda than rural residents, and sex was the only individual factor not associated with issue distance, or how influenced individuals were by media agenda.
National results examined how factors including economic development and media freedom influence individuals’ agenda overlap with media agenda and found both were strong predictors of alignment. Specifically, economic development measures showed people from developed nations were more likely to sway from the national media agenda, while lack of wealth tended to show individuals in agreement with media on top issues.
“It’s possible people in more developed countries are more skeptical and the media doesn’t have as much influence on them,” Vu said. “However, when you have enough economic resources, you can think about things like the environment or gender equality. When you’re living in poverty, it’s hard to think about anything other than putting food on the table. Also, people in nondeveloped countries often have few media options or don’t have as much media contact.”
While increases in economic development showed an increase in distance between individuals’ and media agendas, the researchers found that in countries with little press freedom, as development increased, so did agenda overlap. Therefore, overlap between public and individual agendas was greatest in rich countries with little press freedom, such as Israel, and the least in rich countries with high press freedom, such as Switzerland.
The findings show that media can still influence what people think about, but several national and individual factors greatly influence how it happens. Effects are not the same from one country to the next or even from one person to the next.
The research “is among the few studies that investigated media effects in association with national macro factors,” the authors wrote. “It empirically corroborates the argument that examining the complex relationship between the media and the public in general needs to be conducted within the wider context of economic development, media systems and culture.”