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We swim in a vast sea of news and information, a gestalt of communication channels where the whole is indeed much greater than the sum of its parts. In this process of learning about the world around us through a continuous process of civic osmosis, the Internet and a growing host of electronic devices add dynamic and major channels to this gestalt. However, in the scholarly examination of communication effects, there is a tendency to emphasize individual media more than the communication media collectively as a system. To mix metaphors – to analyze the trees, but not to admire the forest. Individual media, especially the growing array of new channels in the communication landscape, are intriguing and important. But that is not all the story. The impact of individual media on individuals and society often are highly situational. For example, this particularly can be the case in elections where the mix of candidates and concerns of the day create a vastly different political communication culture from election to election. To cite two American examples from the early days of agenda setting research, in the Charlotte study of the 1972 U.S. presidential election, newspapers demonstrated stronger agenda setting effects than television news . However, in the 1976 U.S. presidential election study of three cities, television was the dominant agenda setter . Sometimes a particular medium holds center stage. More often, the media collectively share center stage. If we were to construct a web site for agenda-setting theory and research, a prominent FAQ – to use the contemporary jargon of the Internet – would be whether newspapers or television are the stronger agenda-setter. And the answer to this question is telling. About half the time, there is no discernible difference in the agenda-setting influence of newspapers and television news. The other half of the time newspapers have the edge by a ratio of roughly two to one. Sometimes a particular medium holds center stage. More frequently, the communication media collectively hold center stage. The perspective and approach to agenda-setting research outlined here, civic osmosis, emphasizes the collective role of the communication media. And the proliferation of new media adds a rich variety of dynamic channels to this communication gestalt. Increasingly, we swim in a vast sea of diversity, and we need to understand the currents in this sea, both those that enhance communication across our communities and nations and those currents that pollute the sea. But above all, we need to understand the sea as whole and how it changes and shifts over time.


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