When researchers set out to discuss the impact of media coverage on public opinion in 1973, newspaper circulation was still climbing, a satellite broadcast for an Elvis Presley show live from Hawaii, Aloha from Hawaii, on January 14, 1973 reportedly reached up to 1.5 billion viewers globally, still one of the largest television audiences for a television show, and the Internet had not grown much past the four-node network connecting three California universities and one in Utah established four years earlier. In the subsequent four decades, millions of people watch SuperBowl games ever year, billions of people use the Internet every day and agenda-setting confirmed that mass media outlets can have influence public opinion on a great variety of subjects. However, few of those studies examined local governments and the ones that did showed an impact on specific cases that were hard to generalize. Still fewer studies examined anything beyond public opinion such as the media’s impact on policy outcomes. This study set out to add to the literature and our understanding of agenda-setting by examining the impact of local newspapers on policy outcomes in cities nationwide. Through a greater understanding of the agenda-setting role of the media, administrators and reporters can better understand the factors that influence changes in policy.

Of course, the factors that influence policy changes are complex. The model proposed for this study acknowledged intervening variables such as the market saturation of the newspaper, whether or not the paper was locally owned or not, how the paper used online media to supplement the print edition and where the town being studied was located. It also acknowledged that policy change does not happen a vacuum. Media coverage leads to changes in public opinion, which leads to changes in the political agenda, which leads to changes in policy. Those changes in policy, might, in turn, lead to more media coverage influenced as well by interpersonal communication between politicians, bureaucrats and their constituents and events that occur independent of media coverage experienced by politicians, bureaucrats and citizens in the 143 communities selected for study representing all regions of the United States. This research, summarized in table 22, affirms the ideas introduced by John Kingdon (2003) who states that policy is changed when a group of factors coalesce into a window of opportunity for policy change. It affirms the ideas of Baumgartner and Jones (1993) who showed that policy change might occur when waves of enthusiasm push policy change to the fore. And certainly it affirms the ideas of Cohen, March and Olsen (1972) who discussed how, from a garbage can of ideas, policy change can occur depending on the mix of the cans available, the labels attached to the alternative cans, what garbage is being produced and on the speed with which garbage is collected and removed from the scene. It also adds to the concepts they introduced.

Table 22: Summary of Findings
Hypothesis Confirmed? Findings
H1 Yes/Limited Local coverage and policy change are positively correlated over a five-year period in certain areas of the budget.
H2 No Staff size was negatively correlated with budget change. As the budget increased, staff size decreased, probably due to external factors.
H3 No Market saturation was negatively correlated with market saturation, probably due to external factors.
H4 No As the budget increases, the type and amount of online coverage decreases. However, community newspapers do seem to be increasing their online presence through the websites and use of social media.
H5a Yes/Limited Local ownership had no impact on policy change except in the area of public safety.
H5b Undetermined It was not possible to determine what television stations and newspapers had common owners partly due to rapid changes in the market.

Coverage and policy change

H1: Local coverage and policy change will be positively correlated.

Of the hundreds of studies on agenda setting, mostly at the national level and mostly of public opinion, researchers often found extremely high correlations, as high as 1.0 (Maher, 1996). Over time, the concept of agenda setting, that media coverage influences public opinion, became accepted. Subsequent studies took this concept one step farther, examining the relationship between media coverage, public opinion and policy outcomes. Mortensen and Serritzlew (2006), for example, examined in the relationship between media coverage and changes in the budgets of 191 Danish municipalities over a 13-year period to examine the outer boundaries of media influence. “If public spending is not affected by the media, then this is an empirical finding that tells us something important about the outer limits of media effects.” They reported that the media may affect political discussions and certain political decisions, but the budgets and broader policy priorities remain largely unaffected.

Similarly, this study examined the impact of media coverage not on public opinion but on policy change. In findings similar to those of Mortensen and Serritzlew, this study finds that media have almost no impact on budget changes in the short-term (one year) and minimal impact over a five-year period. Even when the media coverage does impact policy change, it does not do so equally across all areas of the budget. Instead, of the four areas studies, media influence was greatest in parks and recreation and public works, not public safety or economic development. In addition, findings show that the budgets of the Western states (California, Oregon and Washington) increased at a rate slower than the rest of the country. As other research indicated, California, due to decades of over-spending and poor fiscal management, bore the brunt of the economic downturn.

Size of Staff

H2: The size of a newspaper’s staff will be correlated positively with policy change. The larger the size of the staff, the larger the positive correlation.

The size of the staff had a significant impact on the outcome in three departments: parks and recreation, public safety and public works. As the budget increased, the staff size was predicted to be lower, something, that did not initially seem correct. However, due to massive cuts in newspaper staffs over the last decade, the exact relationship between staff size and policy outcomes was difficult to determine using the information in this study.

This did, however, open another avenue for research on the decline of local reporting, a decline that has been documented through numerous case studies as have the decline in investigative reporting and decline in reporting on governmental issues. As Mary Walton (2010) reports, “Kicked out, bought out or barely hanging on, investigative reporters are a vanishing species in the forests of dead tree media and missing in action on Action News. I-Teams are shrinking or, more often, disappearing altogether. Assigned to cover multiple beats, multitasking backpacking reporters no longer have time to sniff out hidden stories, much less write them. In Washington, bureaus that once did probes have shrunk, closed and consolidated.” As she reports, the Investigative Reporters and Editors association saw membership fall to a 10-year low. The Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times, used to have dozens of investigative reporters in Washington. It now has one. And with all the downsizing of news staffs across the country today, there just are not enough reporters to probe into topics such at the effects of lobbyists in statehouses across the country or anti-terrorism strategies in local communities or discrimination by local law-enforcement officials. Those stories just take too much time. As Palm Beach Post reporter Tom Dubocq, who accepted a buyout offer that included health benefits for life after winning recognition for a series of reports of local corruption that had three county commissioners and assorted others put in jail, said when reporters like him leave, “The bad guys get away with stuff.”

Market Saturation

H3: The higher the quality of the newspaper as measured through circulation, the higher the correlation between local coverage and policy change.

As the budgets for the towns increase, the newspaper’s market saturation decreases, disproving this hypothesis. Indeed, market saturation and policy change are negatively correlated probably due to external factors including the downsizing of most newspapers worldwide. The papers in this study showed a decline similar to the decline of all newspapers nationwide, reaffirming what the popular press has been reporting for some time — newspaper circulation, and hence market saturation, is down. This steady decline does not bode well for even local newspapers which might have been somewhat immune to the declining circulation because they are one of few sources for local news in a community without other media. There may come a time when printed newspapers decline in circulation so far that their impact on public opinion, the political agenda and policy change is imperceptible. The impact of local newsletters, e-mail distribution lists, word of mouth, social media and even information distributed primarily online by the local government itself warrant further research. As indicated in the initial model, these external factors may play as significant a role in policy change over time as local newspapers.

Web Presence

H4: Local newspapers with a Web presence will show a higher correlation between local coverage and policy change.

This study demonstrated that newspapers are making more use of their online presence not just to republish content in the print edition but to supplement it with social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Both have had a profound impact on news media reporting but the data in this research show an online media have little impact on policy changes and when they did have an impact, it was only on the aggregated budget over a five-year period. Only within the last few years have studies been published examining the impact of the social media on various aspects of reporting and more work is needed in this area.[1] For example, as a media outlet, how can comments on Facebook or Twitter influence the opinions of citizens, politicians and bureaucrats? And what impact do social media outlets have on policy outcomes? In short, what is the agenda-setting effect of the social media? Further, how can local governments themselves use social media to inform public opinion and policy outcomes?

Recent research by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that Americans now tend to get their national and international news from the Internet more so than newspapers. “Among all adults, the Internet is either the most popular source or tied with newspapers as the most popular source for five of the 16 local topics in the survey—from restaurants and businesses to housing, schools and jobs.” And citizens seem to be using the Internet more and more for information about their local communities. Among the 79 percent of Americans who are online, the Internet is an even more significant source for local news and information.” However, while they’re using the Internet, they are not using the websites of local newspapers or televisions to get their information. “In none of our topics did more than 6 percent of respondents say they depended on the website of a legacy news organization. In addition 5 percent said they relied on a TV station website when there was breaking news in their community, and 3 percent relied on local TV websites for local political news. After that, TV news websites barely registered” (Rosenstiel, et. al., 2011). This warrants further investigation.


H5a: Locally owned newspapers will have a stronger correlation between amount of coverage of local issues and policy change than newspapers owned by national chains.

The percentage of papers in this study that were locally owned was higher than other studies revealed was the national average and still local ownership seemed to have little impact on policy change. The effects of local ownership, however, warrant further investigation particularly in a case-study examination of individual papers that have a stronger influence on policy change and are locally owned. In addition, why local ownership seems to be more strongly correlated to public safety warrants specific examination. Are local owners more interested in public safety because it is likely to impact their personal safety?

H5b: Local newspapers owned by the same company as the local television station will show a higher correlation between local coverage and policy change.

While this was cut from the study, the impact of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 specifically warrants further examination as to its impact on local newspapers. “[N]ewsstands still hold rows and rows of newspapers and magazines on a variety of subjects, while cable television channels continue to multiply as do movies and records. They are likely, however, to be variations of the same themes and messages” (Golding and Murdock, 1996). Because of this, officials may find it difficult to get their messages out and citizens may find it difficult to find a variety of viewpoints so they can make educated decisions on local policies.


As with any research project, this one had its limitations. First and foremost of these was the method of data collection. No pre-existing data set existed either for the content analysis portion of the study of local newspapers or the budgetary data of local communities. While the EBSCO Newspaper Source Plus database did provide an efficient manner for searching the content of local newspapers, it was time-consuming and limited in scope. Over time, more newspapers will move their entire archive on to their own websites increasing the possibilities for research. In addition, there remains no central clearinghouse for local government budgets so each town’s budget had to be obtained and analyzed. This made it more apparent why the studies that do exist are primarily short-term studies of one town or case studies of isolated events. Further, since there are different methods of budgeting and the budgets take different forms, determining which areas were included in the areas studied remained a challenge even while remaining consistent for each town if not between towns. Although the final study sample includes only 143 towns in all nine regions and 43 states, it includes a content analysis of tens of thousands of stories over at least three years if not more. Some towns made their budgets available for 10 years or more, but two towns refused to disclose their budgets at all

A second limitation of this research included the timeframe of the study, 2005-2010. The time frame was chosen to maximize the amount of data available for each town and each media outlet in comparison to several one-year periods. However, in the middle of this timeframe lies 2008, the beginning of the Great Recession. Although town budgets did not appear to be showing the impact of the Great Recession until 2011 or 2012, the economic downturn inevitably had an impact on politicians, bureaucrats, reporters and editors even when they were not faced with short-term decisions about what to cut from the budget. In addition, the economic downturn and changes in the mass media industry resulted in smaller staffs and fewer news outlets. Beyond the scope of this research, other researchers have demonstrated that smaller staffs and fewer news outlets results in less coverage of local government, particularly investigative work.

Finally, the methodology itself presented challenges. Correlations do not show direction of causation. In this short term, other pieces of literature have shown that media coverage precedes public opinion change and policy outcomes at least in isolated instances. However, the significant piece of this study examined policy outcomes over a five-year period. Inevitably over that length of time multiple factors will help bureaucrats and politicians determine policy outcomes, only one of which will be media coverage. Indeed, media coverage might follow the policy process as much as precede it. Other studies will need to address this concern at the local level.

Areas for Future Research

If nothing else, significant and long-term research always reveals more areas for additional research. This study was no exception and some of the ideas for future research have been discussed above in relation to the specific hypotheses discussed in this research. In general, however, other ideas for future research have become apparent, including examining the budgetary changes in California specifically to examining data pre- and post-Great Recession.

The first area that seems to warrant additional research is the impact of the Great Recession. While media outlets may have some influence on budgetary changes, massive drops in revenue will clearly have a great impact. While politicians and bureaucrats may not want to cut the public safety budget, for example, and media coverage may indicate that the citizens do not want the public safety budget, as the largest piece of the local government budget, local officials my have no other choice but to use forced retirements, cuts in pension plans and ultimately layoffs and cuts in service to balance the budget. The way the Great Recession is included in the study may also warrant some examination especially if data pre-Great Recession can be compared to data post-Great Recession, data from 2005-2008 (pre) compared to 2008-2011 (during) compared to 2011-2014 (post), for example. In this study, several one-year periods showed no relationship between media coverage and policy change. Using existing theories as a guide, when the time-period of examination was increased to five years, some significant relationships were revealed. The time frame in which the media begins to have an impact warrants further examination. Is it two years? Three years? What happens beyond five years? Further, with the data collected over a 10-year period, a true time-series analysis of the changes in the budget and the changes in media coverage may help gain more insights into the impact media outlets have over time.

Related to examining the impact of the Great Recession on local communities and local media outlets, the specific impact on subregion 4.9 (California specifically) and by subregion 4.9 generally warrants further examination. As discussed in chapter five, legislation passed in California back in the 1970s has seemingly resulted in California becoming a stalemate society as citizens value stability over expansion. As the results show, California is clearly “different” from the other states studied and the impact those differences have on the cities and towns in California specifically warrants further examination. Such a study may also provide, on an isolated basis, for some further examination of the direction of causation between media coverage and policy changes as modern politicians and bureaucrats contend with legal constraints (from California’s Proposition 13 passed in 1978 to Proposition 1A passed in 2004) that often prevent them from making substantive changes in the way the government agencies within the state operate (Gamage, 2009). Some case studies of specific towns that have seen drastic budget cuts or significant changes in the media outlets in their local area (such as the closure of a newspaper) may provide additional insight into what truly influences policy change at the local level.

In addition to the Great Recession that took place since work on this study began changing the way cities and towns operate, media outlets have changed dramatically in the last five years. In 2004, Facebook came online. As of February 2012, Facebook has 845 million active users (Protalinski, 2012). In 2006, Twitter came online. By 2011, 300 million people used Twitter, often for spot news updates. These two online services changed the media landscape and certainly warrant additional research. In particular, these two services, combined with websites, allow local governments to quickly, efficiently and inexpensively disseminate massive amounts of information in a timely fashion. Governments have already begun to use these services for breaking news alerts, everything from weather alerts to traffic jams to public safety notices. More like in-house public relations agencies, they are disseminating notes from committee meetings online and engaging citizens in interactive polls, all without having to depend on mass media outlets as gatekeepers.

The websites of the media outlets too have changed in the time studied as well. About a decade ago, newspapers relied on third-party vendors such as EBSCO to archive their stories online. Or they just maintained a print archive but no online archive. Now, thanks to changes in technology that have made archiving less expensive and seamlessly integrated into the workfl0w, more and more newspapers maintain a full archive of the stories published in print and online only on their own websites. This full archive without any external gatekeepers making selections about what to archive or not as EBSCO does will prove even more valuable to researchers.

Of course, print media is not the only media changing. This study excluded television. Indeed, many of the towns in the study had no local television station, instead relying on television coverage from nearby city, often a much larger city. Television stations, too, are making great use of social media and websites in their coverage of local government. Some stations even have a dedicated, second cable channel on which they play things such as entire school board meetings and city council meetings in a local version of CSPAN. What impact this might have on citizen involvement, if any, is unclear. However, the cost to the media outlet and the local government is minimal and it provides citizens an opportunity to observe their government in action. Local news is the next most popular source for weather and breaking news. “It has made itself essential in people’s lives for events happening right now….” However, for political coverage, local television finds itself in head-to-head competition with the local newspaper or its website with the Internet coming in a distant third (Rosenstiel, et. al., 2011).

Some research on agenda setting has even stronger implications for the power of the media (and other forms of communication). New research suggests that the media not only tell us what to think about, but also how to think about it, and, consequently, what to think (McCombs, 1993). In particular, researchers have introduced the concept of framing, refining agenda setting. There is evidence from research by Gitlin (1980) that the way an object on the agenda is framed can have measurable consequences. “The attributes of an issue emphasized in the news coverage can, for example, directly influence the direction of public opinion.” Given that the media influence at the local level seems to be stronger in specific areas such as parks and recreation and public works, additional research might use the concepts of framing to examine exactly how parks and recreation and public works are portrayed in the media and why such media coverage might have more of an impact on policy outcomes.

As the initial model indicates, factors beyond public opinion and the media influence policy, including interpersonal communication and real-world indicators. Recent research shows the importance of word of mouth, e-mail distribution lists, community newsletters and radio. As governments vamp up their Web presence as well as use of social media, the impact of this public relations tool on policy outcomes also merits examination. While news outlets purport to investigate multiple sides of a story, citing holding government officials accountable for their actions as one of their prime missions, government-run sites have no such obligation. Still, current research shows that local residents do not rely upon information from their own governments even for information about the government itself. “Just 3 percent of adults say they rely on their local government (including both local government websites or visiting offices directly) as the main source of information for both taxes and for local social services, and even fewer cite their local government as a key source for other topics such as community events, zoning and development, and even local government activity” (Rosenstiel, et. al., 2011).

Finally, this research points to several potential areas of study regarding the papers that saw the greatest changes in the past decade and the papers that saw the smallest changes. Similarly, the towns that were able to avoid the budget cuts that other cities faced or the cities that saw the most cuts and how they coped with the changes. A great deal of the research in agenda setting involves case studies, and the outlier cases identified in this study may warrant further case study investigation.


In the 35 years since researchers first published on agenda setting, they have published hundreds of journal articles and dozens of books on the topic. Indeed, one of the challenges of studying any aspect of agenda setting is trying to absorb the totality of the research. It is, as Gerald Kosicki (1993) said, “an exceedingly complex task.” Just as the study of agenda setting has grown complex, so has agenda setting theory itself.

This research set out to expand our knowledge of agenda setting, given that we know so much about agenda setting, gatekeeping and framing at the national level. Media coverage does have a limited impact on policy changes at the local level, so now researchers can set out to find factors that might influence policy change and administrators and reporters can react appropriately. However, given the limited impact, it is now clear that there is an outer boundary to the impact of media coverage on policy outcomes. Media coverage does not impact policy outcomes over the short term and does not impact all policy areas equally even over the long term. In addition, newspaper staff size and policy change seem to be related although clearly that relationship needs a more in-depth analysis especially in light of the drastic cuts on newspapers staffs in the first decade of the 21st century. Building on this research, research into agenda setting at the local level can expand into other realms including case studies of exceptional incidents, more exploration of the impact of online media, and an acknowledgement that media outlets tell us what to think about and how to think about it even if they do not influence all policy outcomes in the short-term.

[1] Two of the papers presented at the March 8-10, 2012 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Southwest Colloquium discussed the use of social media in Middle Eastern protests and the 2011 Egyptian revolution and showed the impact that Twitter, in particular, can have on public opinion leading, ultimately, to political revolution.