The Interleaved Approaches to Political Media Effects

The political effects of media are studied the most through combinations of priming, framing, and agenda setting. These terms assume definitions with nuanced-yet-significant differences across the media effects literature, both changing over time and through differing uses when combined with other models and frameworks (as discussed throughout Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007; and mentioned in Rosko-Ewoldsen, Rosko-Ewoldsen, & Carpentier, 2009, p. 79).

Priming is a term originating from psychological theories of memory. Sometimes borrowing from a water pump metaphor — like the hydraulic model, that the priming effect makes certain information more accessible at the cost of making competing information less so (Rosko-Ewoldsen et al., 2009, p. 77) — in recent literature it has become more apt to understand priming effects as those preparing certain information or concepts for easier accessibility (Kim, 2005, via Rosko-Ewoldsen et al., 2009, p. 77) rather than as having a negative effect over competing information. Priming is a useful, powerful means of understanding our responses to mass media, but the effect itself is inherently short-lived (Rosko-Ewoldsen et al., 2009, pp. 74, 80). The priming effect, which is based in a network model of memory, results when the prior activation of a concept permits the same and related concepts to be more accessible for subsequent recall (Rosko-Ewoldsen et al., 2009, pp. 74 – 74; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007, pp. 11, 15). (In addition to accessibility, Rosko-Ewoldsen et al. note that Price and Tewksbury’s model of political priming also “incorporate[s] the applicability of information” as a moderator of the effect [2009, p. 82].) Together with framing, priming allows communication researchers to explain the impact of news content on the subjective interpretations that individuals take from news coverage, as well as providing an explanatory mechanism for occasions when those interpretations differ from what an individual’s prior beliefs and political leanings would otherwise predict.

Framing, as a general word, is to establish boundaries. It is to separate in from out, to provide selective focus, or to emphasize details at the expense of removing others. As a term in Media Effects, framing carries a similar meaning. It describes how media, even when working with the same sets of facts, can give audiences different interpretations of the events and stories based on how those stories are told to audiences (such as the effects observed in Skinner & Cheadle, 2016). Yet, media frames are also necessary devices to filter and relate complex topics (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007, p. 12). Where priming investigates effects within the mind of an individual audience member, framing explores content messages themselves and their broader, long-term effects (McLeod, Kosicki, & McLeod, 2009, p. 230), meaning that it can explore both the macrolevel effects of frame-building and the microlevel effects of an individual’s mental schema (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007, pp. 11 – 12). Further still, framing and priming models are able to be used together to explain combinations of applicability and accessibility effects (McLeod et al., 2009, p. 230). 

Agenda-setting is the idea that the media, and their content producers, have a role in establishing the social, civic, and political topics discussed by and on the minds of media audiences. It does this by measuring “salience,” the importance and relevance of information and concepts in the minds of audiences (McCombs & Reynolds, 2009, p. 7; McLeod et al., 2009, p. 230). Like framing and priming, it provides a powerful means for understanding and describing the political effects of media, especially of the news media. Scheufele and Tewksbury (2007) further classify it, alongside priming, as a memory-based theory grounded in the accessibility of mental constructs (p. 15). The agenda setting perspective, unlike framing and priming, originates in ideas from 1922 and is based on a strong effects understanding of the media (McCombs & Reynolds, 2009, p. 2) where Walter Lippmann, an early researcher of mass communication, sought to “examine how in the individual person the limited messages from outside, formed into a pattern of stereotypes, are identified with his own interests as he feels and conceives them” (Lippmann, 1922, p. 30). Decades later, these ideas were revived by McCombs and Shaw (1972, via McCombs & Reynolds, 2009, p. 2) and have since grown a considerable (as defined by McCombs & Reynolds, 2009, pp. 2 – 3) body of evidence across heterogenous groups. 

However, agenda setting (on its own) can be criticized as being overly “simplistic” and “broad” (Funkhouser, 1973a, 1973b, via Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007, p. 15). Once bolstered with framing and priming, the new framework becomes more nuanced (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007, pp. 14 – 15). Currently, agenda setting uses four perspectives to describe and understand effects which cover those at individual versus population levels and those effects across single agenda items and aggregate sets of agenda items (McCombs & Reynolds, 2009, p. 5). It is further classified into levels, first and second level agenda setting, which permits addressing distinctions between subjects and attributes (Hill & Watson, 2015). The range of these perspectives permit the framework a versatility lacking in framing and priming alone, as well as lacking in earlier agenda setting hypotheses. 

Literature reviewed
  • Hill, A., & Watson, J. (2015). Agenda-setting. In Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies. Retrieved from
  • Lippmann, W. (1922). Public opinion. Retrieved from
  • McCombs, M., & Reynolds, A. (2009). How the news shapes our civic agenda. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 1 – 16). New York: Routledge.
  • McLeod, D. M., Kosicki, G. M., & McLeod, J. M. (2009). Political Communication Effects. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 228 – 251). New York: Routledge.
  • Rosko-Ewoldsen, D. R., Rosko-Ewoldsen, B., & Carpentier, F. D. (2009). Media Priming: An updated synthesis. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: advances in theory and research (3rd ed, pp. 74 – 93). New York: Routledge.
  • Scheufele, D. A., & Tewksbury, D. (2007). Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models. Journal of Communication, 57(1), 9 – 20.
  • Skinner, A. L., & Cheadle, J. E. (2016). The “Obama Effect”? Priming Contemporary Racial Milestones Increases Implicit Racial Bias among Whites. Social Cognition, 34(6), 544 – 558.