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Policy Agenda-Setting Theory Revisited: A Critique of Howlett on Downs, Baumgartner and Jones, and Kingdon*

  • Stuart Soroka (a1)

Abstract

The author critiques two articles by Michael Howlett published recently by this Journal, and comments on policy agenda-setting theory. Howlett's articles use Canadian data to test three different policy agenda-setting theories forwarded by Anthony Downs, by Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones and by John Kingdon. This commentary suggests that the tests have several major flaws. These flaws are a product of several factors: Howlett's dataset and use of statistics, his interpretation of the theories at hand and empirical problems with the policy agenda-setting theories themselves.

Ce texte critique deux articles de Michael Howlett publiés récemment dans cette Revue et les théories portant sur la gestion de l'agenda politique. Les articles de Howlett testent, à l'aide de données canadiennes, trois différentes théories avancées par Anthony Downs, par Frank Baumgartner et Bryan Jones et par John Kingdon. Cette analyse montre que ce test comporte plusieurs lacunes majeures qui tiennent d'une part, ` la nature des données de Howlett, à son utilisation des statistiques et à son interprétation des théories précitées et, d'autre part, aux problèmes empiriques coulant des théories portant sur la gestion de l'agenda politique.

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1 Howlett, Michael, “Issue-Attention and Punctuated Equilibria Models Reconsidered: An Empirical Examination of the Dynamics of Agenda-Setting in Canada,” this Journal 30 (1997), 330; and Predictable and Unpredictable Policy Windows: Institutional and Exogenous Correlates of Canadian Federal Agenda-Setting,” this Journal 31 (1998), 495524. The sources of the three theories Howlett analyzes are as follows: Downs, Anthony, “Up and Down With Ecology: The ‘Issue Attention Cycle,’The Public Interest 28 (1972), 3850; Baumgartner, Frank R. and Jones, Bryan D., Agendas and Instability in American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); and Kingdon, John W., Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (New York: HarperCollins, 1984).

2 Cross-correlation functions (CCFs) are a product of correlations between two series at various lags and leads. They are usually used to help identify causal links between two time series. For a more detailed description of CCFs and their uses, see Chatfield, C., The Analysis of Time Series: An Introduction (4th ed.; London: Chapman and Hall, 1989).

3 For suggestions regarding ways in which public agenda-setting effects might be affected by the nature of the issue, see Yagade, Aileen and Dozier, David M., “The Media Agenda-Setting Effect of Concrete Versus Abstract Issues,” Journalism Quarterly 67 (1990), 310; and Zucker, Harold G., “The Variable Nature of News Media Influence,” in Ruben, B. D., ed., Communication Yearbook, Vol. 2 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1978), 225245. Theories discussed in the preceding articles have been considered and tested, with varied results, by Behr, Roy L. and Iyengar, Shanto, “Television News, Real-World Cues, and Changes in the Public Agenda,” Public Opinion Quarterly 49 (1985), 3857; Demers, David P., Craff, Dennis, Choi, Yang-Ho and Pession, Beth M., “Issue Obtrusiveness and the Agenda-Setting Effects of National Network News,” Communication Research 16 (1989), 793812; Wanta, Wayne and Hu, Yu-Wei, “The Agenda-Setting Effects of International News Coverage: An Examination of Differing News Frames,” International Journal of Public Opinion Research 5 (1993), 250264; and Winter, James P., Eyal, Chaim H. and Rogers, Ann H., “Issue Specific Agenda-Setting: The Whole Is Less than the Sum of the Parts,” Canadian Journal of Communication 8 (1982), 110.

4 There are no countries with an accumulated body of public opinion data comparable to that in the US. One well-suited dataset was collected in Germany, and this generated a number of fascinating agenda-setting articles (see, for example, Brosius, Hans-Bernd and Kepplinger, Hans Mathias, “The Agenda-Setting Function of Television News: Static and Dynamic Views,” Communication Research 17 [1990], 183211; Brosius, Hans Bemd and Kepplinger, Hans Mathias, “Beyond Agenda-Setting: The Influence of Partisanship and Television Reporting on the Electorate's Voting Intentions,” Journalism Quarterly 69 [1992] 893901). For the most part, however, useful longitudinal public opinion data for agendasetting researchers outside the US remains slight at best.

5 Baumgartner and Jones, Agendas and Instability, 16.

6 The citation Howlett uses from Baumgartner and Jones comes directly from the section where authors clarify what they mean by cyclical views of politics (Agendas and Instability in American Politics, 244–45; Howlett, “Issue-Attention and Punctuated Equilibrium Models Reconsidered,” 24). Baumgartner and Jones cite a number of examples of cyclical models, including Huntington, Samuel P., American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981); and McFarland, Andrew S., “Interest Groups and Political Time: Cycles in America,” British Journal of Political Science 17 (1991), 257284.

7 This is also true of Jones's more recent work (Reconceiving Decision-Making in Democratic Politics: Attention, Choice, and Public Policy [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994]).

8 Howlett, “Predictable and Unpredictable Policy Windows,” 500.

9 Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, 152–72.

10 Ibid., 156.

11 See, for instance, Rogers, Everett M. and Dealing, James W., “Agenda-Setting Research: Where Has It Been, Where Is It Going?” in Anderson, James A., ed., Communication Yearbook, Vol. 11 (London: Sage, 1988), 555594.

12 The three policy-making theories Howlett tests show, to varying degrees, how agenda-setting can permit the analysis of the media, the public and policy using a single framework. For recent examples from political communications, see Gonzenbach, William J., The Media, The President, and Public Opinion: A Longitudinal Analysis of the Drug Issue, 1984–1991 (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996); and Rogers, Everett M., Dearing, James W. and Chang, S., “AIDS in the 1980s: The Agenda-Setting Process of a Public Issue,” Journalism Monographs 126 (April 1991).

* The author thanks Richard Johnston and Kathryn Harrison for their helpful comments on a previous draft of this article, and Petula Muller for her help translating the abstract.

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