Agenda-Setting Theory in the U.S. Media: A Comparative Analysis of Terrorist Attacks in France and Nigeria
Jonathan Matusitz* and David Ochoa
Nicholaon School of Communication and Media, University of Central Florida, Sanford, USA
- *Corresponding Author:
- Jonathan Matusitz
Nicholaon School of Communication and Media
University of Central Florida
Received date: Sep 12, 2018; Accepted date: Sept 19, 2018; Published date: Sept 26, 2018
Citation: Jonathan Matusitz. Agenda-Setting Theory in the U.S. Media: A Comparative Analysis of Terrorist Attacks in France and Nigeria. Global Media Journal 2018, 16:31.
Copyright: © 2018 Matusitz J, et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
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This paper examines six major terrorist attacks that occurred in France and Nigeria between 2011 and 2016. The sources used were the news websites of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today. Agenda-Setting Theory postulates that the media has the ability to determine the salience of topics in the public domain. “Salience” is the perceived importance of issues or subjects in the eyes of the public. An important conclusion of this analysis is that the U.S. media has been over-reporting terrorist events in France, while underreporting terrorist events in Nigeria. The results of this paper substantiate previous studies that found that U.S. news reports on terrorist attacks in the West gain more widespread media coverage and attention. Evidence of over-reporting and under-reporting of these terrorist incidents attests to the power of Agenda-Setting Theory in the U.S. media because, ultimately, this shapes public perception of the threat that international terrorism poses to innocent people in the West.
Agenda-setting theory; Bias; France; Media
coverage; Nigeria; Public perception; Terrorism
Drawing on Agenda-Setting Theory, this paper examines six
major terrorist attacks that occurred in France and Nigeria
between 2011 and 2016. Developed by McCombs and Shaw,
Agenda-Setting Theory rests on the premise that the media
has the ability to determine the salience of topics in the public
domain . “Salience” is the perceived importance of issues or
subjects in the eyes of the public. Two basic assumptions
inspire most studies on agenda-setting:
• The press and the media do not strive to obtain objective
facts; rather, they filter or tweak them; and
• The media focus on certain issues leads the public to
believe those issues are more important than others [2,3].
Six major terrorist attacks were examined: three in France
and three in Nigeria. These specific terrorist attacks were
selected because they not only killed many innocent people;
they also occurred quite recently. The acts of terror in France
were the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January 2015, the
November 13th, 2015 Paris attacks, and the 2016 Nice truck
attack. The acts of terror in Nigeria were the U.N. compound
bombing in Abuja in 2011, the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping in
2014, and the Baga massacre in January 2015. The sources
used were the news websites of The New York Times, The
Washington Post, and USA Today. These three U.S. newspapers
were selected because they enjoy a wide circulation (both in
print and online). To find articles on terrorist attacks in France
and Nigeria, we conducted separate searches on these three
The countries of France and Nigeria were specifically chosen
because the former receives much more widespread attention
than the latter. Hence, it is the authors’ belief that infusing
Agenda-Setting Theory into this analysis exposes the bias in
reporting terrorist attacks that have been perpetrated in
recent years. No assumption is made in this paper that
terrorism in France does not deserve attention, but post-9/11
discourses on terrorism have been mostly centered on
Western civilization (i.e., mostly North America and Europe),
not Africa . Furthermore, as explained by Wahutu (in press),
there is a conventional wisdom in some circles of the U.S.
media establishment that, because terrorism in Africa is the
norm, it does not deserve significant media coverage.
An important conclusion of this analysis is that the U.S.
media has been over-reporting terrorist events in France,
while under-reporting terrorist events in Nigeria. The results of
this paper substantiate previous studies that found that U.S.
news reports on terrorist attacks in the West gain more
widespread media coverage and attention. By the same token,
terrorist events that occur within Western civilization gain
more views because they are more likely to generate more
revenue . Evidence of over-reporting and under-reporting of
these terrorist incidents attests to the power of Agenda-
Setting Theory in the U.S. media because, ultimately, this
shapes public perception of the threat that international
terrorism poses to innocent people in the West. This is why
the authors believe that a better balance of U.S. news
coverage of terrorist attacks in the West and Africa should be achieved so the U.S. public be better informed and form a
more even-handed opinion.
This paper begins with a description of Agenda-Setting
Theory, including its main tenets and origins. The following
section defines terrorism from a general perspective. Then,
the authors proceed to compare terrorist attacks in France
with those in Nigeria, particularly attacks that occurred
between 2011 and 2016. What comes subsequently is the
heart of paper: the use of Agenda-Setting Theory to compare
terrorist attacks in France and Nigeria. After the conclusions
section, this paper ends with a discussion that also offers
suggestions for future research.
Description of the Theory
Developed by McCombs and Shaw, Agenda-Setting Theory
rests on the premise that the media has the ability to
determine the salience of topics in the public domain .
“Salience” refers to the perceived importance of issues or
subjects in the eyes of the public [6,7]. Agenda-setting, then, is
the establishment of public awareness of and attention to
salient issues by the mass media. Two basic assumptions
inspire most studies on agenda-setting: (1) The press and the
media do not strive to obtain objective facts; rather, they filter
or tweak them; and (2) the media focus on certain issues leads
the public to believe those issues are more important than
As Matusitz explains, “the theory postulates that the more
the media cover certain issues, the more salient (i.e.,
noticeable, accessible, and significant) these issues become for
the audience” (p. 113) . News media outlets set an agenda
by discussing topics more frequently or less frequently. This, in
turn, influences the public into focusing on a certain topic and
taking a particular stance on it. In other words, the underreporting
or over-reporting of events or issues in the news can
affect public perceptions and behaviors . An example would
be the news media’s influence of public perception about
certain candidates in a presidential election (by over-reporting
one candidate to the detriment of others).
Agenda-Setting Theory is not a relatively new premise, but it
has achieved prominence in academic research in the last few
decades. While the first application of Agenda-Setting Theory
by McCombs and Shaw involved politics, the theory can have a
non-political application as well . Advertising is a good
example of non-political application as the media can show
the audience a particular product more often than other
similar products. This can be found in the success of Gatorade
in relation to other energy drinks. Gatorade saw much more
run time on television football games, which led to its success
Origins of the Theory
1970s . The origins of this theory started in 1922 with
newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann. In his book, Public
Opinion, Lippmann laid the foundation for Agenda-Setting
Theory by examining the notion that most people in the world
do not understand and do not care about the public affairs of
the world . Consequently, the news media was their
primary source of information to form an opinion. This led
them to only fixate on a view of the world that was in line with
the media’s view of the world .
A core tenant of Lippmann’s views proposed that “elites” or
media representatives are the ones who protect/control the
people by interpreting the intents and opinions of politicians.
Over the years, Lippmann became famous for discussing “mass
culture” and the “propaganda machine” that is democracy.
Decades later, Bernard Cohen would further develop
Lippmann’s philosophy by arguing that “the press may not be
successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but
it is stunningly successful in telling readers what to think
about” (p. 13) . The mass media may not be able to
influence how the public thinks about an issue, but it certainly
can influence the public’s salience toward certain issues.
McCombs and Shaw brought this theory into the foreground
when they released their study in 1972 . By interviewing
registered voters in Chapel Hill, NC, during the 1968 U.S.
presidential elections, they examined what the voters thought
were the most prominent issues during these times. The
medians of media were also observed in this study; they were
television, newspapers, news magazines, and editorial page
coverage of newspapers and magazines. Based on information
on the registered voters, who had not yet voted, McCombs
and Shaw quantified the data on numerous issues such as civil
rights, foreign policy, and the Vietnam War. The findings were
very detailed in their study, but the discussion was the most
interesting part. They discovered correlations between voters
ordering of issues with media coverage. According to
McCombs and Shaw :
The existence of an agenda-setting function of the mass
media is not proved by the correlations reported here, of
course, but the evidence is in line with the conditions that
must exist if the agenda-setting by the mass media does occur
To McCombs and Shaw, this was a satisfactory first test, and
it not only indicated the possibility of Agenda-Setting Theory;
it also opened up the pathway towards more research in this
Definition of Terrorism
To begin, it is important to be acquainted with the definition
of terrorism. The U.S. Department of Defense defines
terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat
of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to
intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals
generally political, religious, or ideological” . Likewise,
Fortna defines terrorism as the use of deliberately
indiscriminate violence as a strategy to create terror or fear, in
order to accomplish a political, religious, or ideological goal . For Hoffman, terrorism is not only inherently political in
aims and motives; it also uses violence so as to have
widespread psychological ramifications beyond the immediate
victims or targets . There are many more different
definitions of terrorism from various organizations such as the
UN, FBI, and CIA. Matusitz analyzed most of the available
definitions of terrorism and defines terrorism as “the use of
violence to create fear (i.e., terror, psychic fear) for political,
religious, or ideological reasons”.
While there is no universally agreed-upon definition, this is
a most universally accepted one, and it contains themes from
many of the other definitions .
Terrorist Attacks in France and Nigeria
France and Nigeria are different countries with diverse
demographics, cultures, and geographic locations. Both
experience terrorist attacks, but the organizations that commit
the attacks and the reasons behind them are worth noting.
Just like France, Nigeria is a large-sized federal republic in West
Africa. It borders countries such as Niger, Chad, and Cameroon,
and has a large mass touching the southern Atlantic Ocean.
However, the Nigerian population is three times larger than
the French one.
Attacks in France
France is a large country in the heart of Western Europe.
The main organizations that have claimed responsibility for
most of France’s recent terrorist attacks are the Islamic State
of Iraq and Shām (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda. The West depicts ISIS as
the evil incarnate – meaning that they must be stopped at all
costs in order to prevent the collapse of Western civilization. In
actuality, ISIS has been increasingly contained in the countries
of Iraq and Syria, which present little threat to Western
countries at this time . The speed in growth of ISIS is
important to note, but the primary victims of ISIS are other
Muslims in the Near-Eastern region. ISIS is a Sunni umbrella
terrorist organization that seeks to establish a caliphate in the
states that they control . Tying this together with France,
ISIS sees France as a threat to their caliphate because France
enacts policies against radical Islamists and conducts military
campaigns against the Islamic State. In retribution, Islamic
extremists target France by perpetrating terrorist attacks in
large cities like Paris and Nice. In return, France has retaliated
by increasing aerial bombings over Syria and Iraq, thus fueling
the cycle of global war.
France has always been a target for terrorist attacks, but in
past few years, the nation of 66 million people has suffered
many incidents. These brutal attacks can range from one or
two casualties to hundreds. No matter the number, each
attack is blasted on every news channel through sound bites
for the public to consume. For example, in January 2015,
France was attacked by Al-Qaeda-trained Islamic extremists
who targeted Charlie Hebdo’s offices and proceeded to
conduct multiple assassinations. The attack was followed by a
hostage-taking incident at a Jewish supermarket, and ending
with 17 dead and another 22 injured . The attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices were in retaliation for the comical
depiction of Muhammad being drawn. Still reeling from the
recent attacks, France was not prepared for one of the worst
terrorist attacks it would ever face: the November 13th, 2015
attacks. This day of violence was a series of coordinated
attacks on Paris, where several mass shootings and suicide
bombings occurred throughout the City of Lights. About 130
people were killed and another 300 were injured. Europe had
not seen a deadlier attack since the Madrid train bombings in
2004. ISIS immediately claimed responsibility for the
November 13th, 2015 attacks in Paris .
One final terrorist attack to be discussed in France occurred
on one of the most important calendar days in history. On July
14th, 2016, a truck rammed into a crowd of people as they
were walking on the streets celebrating Bastille Day in Nice.
Crowds were gathered to watch the fireworks when a truck
packed with weapons and ammunition started to run over
hundreds of people which resulted in 86 dead, plus 202
injured . Before the driver could get out of the truck cabin
and unload into the remaining crowds with firearms, as
intended, the police were able to shoot him through the front
window. The driver was identified as Mohamed Lahouaiej
Bouhlel, a resident of Nice at the time. There is much
speculation to which terrorist organization orchestrated this
attack, but ISIS was the first to claim credit and proclaim that
Bouhlel was a “soldier” for ISIS .
Attacks in Nigeria
Nigeria has also seen its fair share of attacks from jihadist
terrorist organizations. In recent years, the first major act of
international terrorism that Boko Haram committed was in
August 2011, when they attacked and bombed a UN
compound in the city of Abuja, the capital of Nigeria . The
tragedy is usually referred to as 2011 Abuja United Nations
bombing, whereby 21 important officials lost their lives and an
additional 73 people were injured . Boko Haram is an
extremist Islamic sect that seeks to “purify” Nigeria from false
Muslims who have taken control of it. They wish to create a
pure Islamic state ruled by sharia (i.e., Islamic law) .
One major difference between Boko Haram and other
terrorist organizations such as ISIS is that they tend to focus all
of their jihadism on a local scale; that is, the terrorist group
has focused its interests inwards, rather than outwards. So far,
it has committed all its terrorist attacks in the Western African
region: in countries such as Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and
Cameroon . Boko Haram is not in the same global category
as these other groups and they are not determined to target
Western interests only. Nonetheless, Boko Haram has been
increasingly attacking “soft targets” such as civilians who are
deemed as “insufficiently Muslim” or too Westernized .
In April 2014, during the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping, in
Northeastern Nigeria, over 250 schoolgirls were kidnapped
right out of their schools by Islamic extremists of Boko Haram
. Along with the schools, Boko Haram decided that
targeting churches and markets full of civilians, in the tribal
areas were the schoolgirls were kidnapped, was also
necessary. Another brutal method of war that Boko Haram used was scorched-earth policies in rural areas . Scorchedearth
policies refer to destroying anything that can be of use to
the enemy after attacking or retreating from an area. This can
mean destruction of crops, houses, and water sources. These
policies have left hundreds of thousands Nigerians displaced
and many more affected .
In January 2015, Boko Haram captured the city of Baga, also
in Northeastern Nigeria. According to some estimates, the
terrorist group killed several thousand people . This
terrorist group has seen much expansion over the years, and
their recent attacks indicate that they have no intention of
stopping. Even though the terrorist attacks in Nigeria can claim
hundreds if not thousands of lives, the attacks receive little
attention from U.S. media news outlets. It is becoming more
and more likely that Boko Haram will establish a caliphate in
Nigeria, thus accomplishing the jihadist goal successfully.
Agenda-Setting Theory to Compare
Terrorist Attacks in France and Nigeria
Agenda-Setting Theory can easily be applied to how the
media either over-reports or under-reports terrorist attacks in
countries such as France and Nigeria. To assert the value of
this theory, analysis was conducted on the method of
reporting done by the media. To be more precise, by
examining how mainstream U.S. media outlets present the
information in their papers, a comparative analysis on the
news reports discussing the terrorist events in France and
Nigeria was conducted to determine if they were underreported
or over-reported in the United States. The extent to
which a certain attack is covered could, in turn, affect the
salience and public opinion of the intended audience. The
media filters, shapes, and concentrates on these attacks, thus
leading the public into thinking that the issue is more
important than it really is. The sources used were the news
websites of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and
USA Today. To find articles on terrorist attacks in France and
Nigeria, we conducted separate searches on these three
News about terrorist attacks in France
The first case of a major recent terrorist act in France were
the brutal coordinated attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s office and
the surrounding community, which left 17 dead and another
22 injured . This was a well-coordinated terrorist attack
intended to kill as many civilians as possible in retaliation for
Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon depiction of the prophet Muhammed.
Al-Qaeda immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
Since the attack occurred, news articles about this tragic story
can be found throughout any journalistic site. As such, as of
January 2017, The New York Times had over 525 articles, The
Washington Post had about 370, and USA Today had more
than 400. It is also important to note that these articles may
discuss the attacks, but not necessarily be centered on them.
One of these reports is just a one-minute video filming the
terrorists outside the Charlie Hebdo’s offices on the day of the
attack . The United States Department of State Secretary, John Kerry, spoke out against the January 2015 attacks in Paris.
In his remarks, John Kerry was quick to show sympathy for
France and assured the world that we would “stand in
solidarity with them” .
The second major terrorist attack that occurred in Paris was
the November 13th, 2015 attacks, where 130 innocent people
lost their lives and hundreds more were injured . Paris was
shaken to its core by a series of meticulously planned and wellcoordinated
attacks against soft targets of the civilian
population. A little over a year later, using keywords such as
“November 2015 Paris Attacks,” The New York Times had
approximately 435 news articles on those very attacks. The
Washington Post had about 280, and USA Today had close to
800. All these articles discussed the November 2015 attacks in
Paris, but some of them were only short reports about those
attacks. The media also reported the speech delivered by
Secretary of State, John Kerry, in his press statement about the
attacks. He highlighted the fact that these attacks were
“heinous, evil, vile acts” ; he reaffirmed to the public that
America would do everything in its power to join forces with
France in fighting back against this “immoral villain.” Kerry
went on to mention that America and France were united and
that these terrorist attacks only made them closer .
The most recent major terrorist incident to occur in France
was the 2016 Nice attack. This attack involved a truck driving
through a crowd of people as they were celebrating Bastille
Day in Nice on July 14th, 2016. With 86 dead and 202 more
injured , this event will go down in history as a serious
attack. The New York Times released 130 articles about the
attack, The Washington Post had about 200 and USA Today
had 140 or so. All of these published pieces range from articles
detailing the truck attack to articles discussing speculation on
which vile organization was behind this act of terror.
News about terrorist attacks in Nigeria
In recent years, the first major terrorist act to occur in
Nigeria was the bombing of a UN compound in the city of
Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, usually called 2011 Abuja United
Nations bombing. In regards to the car bombing of the UN
compound to the hostile takeover of a major city that arguably
killed thousands and displaced many more , The New York
Times only published 26 articles. The Washington Post
published 12 articles on that terrorist incident, and USA Today
released nine reports on it. Regarding the 2014 Chibok
schoolgirls kidnapping, where 250 schoolgirls from Chibok
were kidnapped by Boko Haram, took place , The New York
Times only published 121 articles. The Washington Post only
published 70 articles and USA Today only had 74. Those
abductions occurred one to two years before the
aforementioned terrorist attacks in France. Yet, they have seen
much less coverage in the media.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted saying, during
his speech in Nigeria, that “the terrorist group Boko Haram has
killed more than 20,000 people, displaced more than two
million, and flung some seven million Nigerians into hunger,
thirst, and desperate need” (p. 7). It is safe to presume that
the large killing of innocents would attract the media into reporting on the incident, but it is just not happening. In
regards to the Baga massacre in January 2015, The New York
Times only published six whole articles. The Washington Post
did slightly better, with 26 articles on the Baga Massacre.
Lastly, USA Today only did 16 articles on the Baga Massacre.
These articles are also framed in such a way that they only
state the a few hard facts. There was no deeper interpretation
Given these circumstances, several conclusions can be
drawn. Agenda-Setting Theory postulates that “the more the
media cover certain issues, the more salient (i.e., noticeable,
accessible, and significant) these issues become for the
audience” . In this case, the U.S. media has been overreporting
terrorist events in France, while under-reporting
terrorist events in Nigeria. While both countries face multiple
threats, France receives more publicity than Nigeria on a daily
basis. Just a simple article search on the three U.S. news
websites has revealed that keywords such as “ISIS” and
“France” supply thousands of results, while keywords such as
“Boko Haram” and “Nigeria” receive a couple hundred, if not a
few dozens. The results of this study also corroborate previous
studies that found that U.S. news reports on terrorist attacks in
the West gain more widespread media coverage and attention
Evidence of over-reporting and under-reporting of these
terrorist incidents speaks volumes about the power of Agenda-
Setting Theory in the U.S. media because, ultimately, this
shapes public perception of the threat that international
terrorism poses to innocent people in the West. One
hypothesis about this “over-reporting vs. under-reporting” of
news is that most newspapers, television stations, and
websites are profit-oriented . Indeed, terrorist events that
occur within Western civilization gain more views because
they are more likely to generate more revenue . On the
other hand, attacks in Nigeria have a stigma that they cannot
affect the average American’s way of life, so media coverage of
such incidents would not generate much profit.
Although this analysis has revealed that U.S. media sources
run articles on terrorist attacks in France more often than in
Nigeria, can it be demonstrated that this affects public
perceptions of the public at large? There seems to be one
other way of observing the over-reporting or under-reporting
of certain terror attacks. This method would consist of
examining the immigration policies that the U.S. takes after
the attack. After the multiple terrorist attacks in France,
support for refugees, specifically Arabs and Muslims, began to
fade. This can be seen in many of the Western countries
around the globe.
Discussion and Future Directions
After identifying the quantity of coverage from the news
sites of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA
Today of those six terrorist attacks that took place between
2011 and 2016, it is safe to assume that Agenda-Setting Theory is still relevant in the U.S. media today. A significant portion of
the U.S. media establishment has an agenda that affects the
perceptions and beliefs of the American public at large.
Post-9/11 discourses on terrorism have been mostly centered
on Western civilization (i.e., mostly North America and
Europe), not Africa . Furthermore, as explained by Wahutu
(in press), there is a conventional wisdom in some circles of
the U.S. media establishment that, because terrorism in Africa
is the norm, it does not deserve significant media coverage
. This is why the authors of this analysis believe that a
better balance of U.S. news coverage of terrorist attacks in the
West and Africa should be achieved so the U.S. public is better
informed and form a more even-handed opinion.
For future research, it might be useful to examine the
effects of Agenda-Setting Theory on terrorism-related news in
the U.S. media during the Trump presidency. As such, it can be
assumed that the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. will
affect public opinion and increase attention shifted towards
Middle-Eastern terrorist attacks on both U.S. and European
soil. According to Das, Bushman, et al. “news reports about
terrorism would remind people of their own mortality, which
in turn, would increase prejudiced attitude” (p. 458) . In
relation to Agenda-Setting Theory, Das et al. also found that
news is an important assessment benchmark that shapes
public reality [36-38]. People shape their world perception
around what the news tells them.
In regards to the terrorist attacks in Nigeria by Boko Haram,
there is little to no discussion about these attacks. This, in turn,
creates lower salience in the public. With the election of
Donald Trump in 2016, one of Trump’s first proposed Executive
Orders was to ban immigration and travel of citizens from
seven Muslim-majority countries for at least ninety days. The
countries were Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and
Yemen. ISIS holds large portions of land in Iraq and Syria.
Hence, this ban is understandable in that aspect, but what
about Nigeria and Boko Haram? Boko Haram has gained large
amounts of territories in the recent years, especially with the
massacre at Baga. Therefore, why was Nigeria left out of the
There are many answers to this question, but one of them
may possibly be that a large segment of the U.S. population
does not sufficiently see Boko Haram and Nigeria in the news,
thereby not recognizing them as a threat to their own
livelihoods. The three newspaper outlets examined in this
paper displayed an agenda when it came to reporting news
stories in France as opposed to Nigeria. It is the authors’
beliefs that they are representative of the mainstream U.S.
media establishment. This could lead the U.S. public to push
for both hard intervention and soft intervention, respectively,
in these two countries.
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