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The Watergate Burglary and the Agenda-Setting Theory

Megan S. Greer

Communication Theory 245

Dr. Karen Legg

February 28, 2014

The Watergate Burglary and the Agenda-Setting Theory

The Agenda-Setting Theory of Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw posit that the mass media is capable of transferring the news agenda they find the most important to the public agenda. This theory predicts that the media agenda, “the pattern of news coverage across major print and broadcast media as measured by the prominence and length of stories,” is what the public will consider the key issues according to public opinion survey (Griffin, 2012, p. 380). The film, All the President’s Men, by director Alan J. Pakula, is an excellent example of the Agenda-Setting Theory. The movie follows the true story of reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward who made the 1972 break-in of the National Democratic Headquarters headline news. The break-in news stories lead to information being exposed that resulted in the President of United States resigning his position. All the President’s Men shows the power the news media has over the what the public agenda sees as important, which is what McCombs and Shaw proposed in their Agenda-Setting Theory.

Theory: The Agenda-Setting Theory

According to journalism professors McCombs and Shaw, the mass media is what is responsible for the salience of certain issues to the public agenda. The public agenda are the issues that are of most importance to the general public according to public opinion surveys (Griffin, 2012, p. 380). This transfer of what the news media wants the public to think about is done primarily through framing. Framing is what Griffin defines as “the selection of a restricted number of thematically related attributes for inclusion on the media agenda when a particular object or issue is discussed” (Griffin, 2012, p. 381). According to McCombs the media affects the way the public thinks and not just what to think about (Griffin, 2012, p. 381). For example, the Watergate burglary story in the news media wanted the public to think about which “specific attributes” of the story they should dwell on and not just the absence of morality in the act of theft. They consider the Agenda-Setting Theory to have two levels of agenda: the attitude object of the most important issues and the dominant set of attributes that the news media puts with the attitude object, which, in turn, connects this image in the minds of their audience (Griffin, 2012, p. 383). In other words, the media picks the most important issue and the “dominant set” of information concerning that issue, and projects that image into their audience’s mind.

However, McCombs and Shaw found that not all audience members were willing to have the media tell them what to think about and what agenda should be most important to them. They found that it all depends on the people’s “need for orientation” (Griffin, 2012, p. 383). Those with a high “need for orientation” or what some people refer to as their “index of curiosity” are more willing to have the media shape their thinking (Griffin, 2012, p. 385). The media decides what agenda should be selected by whatever the “gatekeepers” see as important or possibly whatever the politicians themselves see as important. The “interest aggregations” which are a handful of people who take center stage for their particular political or social concern are also persistent in the news the media reports (Griffin, 2012, p. 386).

Griffin proposes that the Agenda-Setting Theory is a legitimate theory even if it does not always have the exact desired outcomes that the “gatekeepers” anticipated (Griffin, 2012, p. 388). This theory is able to predict the public agenda of their attitude objects and is able to explain why certain audience members are more likely to be persuaded than others. Griffin’s view concerning the practicality of the Agenda-Setting theory: “agenda setting tells journalist [and other news media] not only what to look for, but how they might alter the pictures in the heads of those who read, view, or listen to the news,” which is the basis of the movie All the President’s Men (Griffin, 2012, p. 389).

Context: All the President’s Men

All the President’s Men, a 1976 film set in Washington, D.C. and directed by Alan Pakula, followed the story of two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who uncovered the White House scandal that lead to the President of the United States resignation. Bob, played by Robert Redford, and Carl, played by Dustin Hoffman were assigned to the Watergate Burglary story and continued to dig deeper into the tale of conspiracy spun by the Nixon White House. On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for burglarizing the Democratic Headquarters located in the Watergate building. Woodward was assigned to report on the burglary, which after some investigation lead to suspicious finding, such as the burglars having worked for the CIA and a possible connection to Chuck Colson, special assistant to the President. Bernstein was eventually assigned to work with Woodward and together they continued to uncover revelations concerning “the entire U.S. intelligence community: FBI, CIA, Justice,” according to Deep Throat, Woodward’s source on deep background (Pakula 1976).

In the Sunday edition of the Washington Post, June 18, 1972, a small article at the bottom of the front page told of the “plot to bug Democratic headquarters.” The two reporters continued to investigate this plot with “headline after headline” showing pieces of the larger plot. However, these stories went mostly unnoticed for the first year, until the summer of 1973, in which the American public became aware of how serious it was when Nixon’s secret tapes were revealed. And by the summer of 1974, the President of the United States, Richard Nixon resigned. The editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee said in 1972 that “half the country had never heard of Watergate” (Pukula, 1976). In accordance to the Agenda-Setting Theory by the spring of 1974, “the majority of the citizens and their representatives” insisted the President resign (Griffin, 2012, p. 378).

Application/Integration of the Theory to the Context

The Agenda-Setting Theory is integrated throughout the movie All the President’s Men because it shows how “the mass media have the ability to transfer the salience of items on their news agendas to the public agenda” (McCombs & Shaw as cited in Griffin, 2012, p. 378). The break-in of the Democratic Headquarters at Watergate was not given much national news attention, but after Woodward and Bernstein continued investigating the deeper conspiracy it was given more news attention. After their stories were appearing regularly in the Washington Post with headline after headline focusing on the break-in, it became important to the public’s agenda. This process is what McCombs and Shaw predicted in their Agenda-Setting Theory. They both stated, “We look to news professionals for cues on where to focus our attention” (McCombs et al. as cited in Griffin, 2012, p. 378).

These “cues” are what the American people used to focus their attention on the White House and in particular the President who weaved a web of deceit throughout the entire government. However, this would have never been important to them had Woodward and Bernstein not made this story national news. As the Agenda-Setting Theory proposed, Woodward and Bernstein not only told the American people “what to think about, but how to think about it,” because they showed evidence of the Republican parties’ activities in the frame they chose (Griffin, 2012, p. 383). This “frame” lead to the President, on August 9, 1974, to voluntarily resign due to the pressure he was under from the other politicians and the American people. If these two reporters had not chosen to continue to pursue the Watergate Burglary, which kept the developments in the national news agenda it never would have become an important issue to the public agenda, which is exactly what the Agenda-Setting Theory states. All the President’s Men is a “perfect example” of the Agenda-Setting Theory’s creator’s statement: “We judge as important what the media judge as important” (McCombs et al. as cited in Griffin, 2012, p. 378).


Griffin, E. (2012). A First look at communication theory (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Pakula, A.J. & Coblenz, W. (1976). All the president’s men. Burbank: Warner Bros.

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