Can Celebrities Set the Agenda?

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18hXnm8zsQijtF/input 869530PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919869530Political Research QuarterlyNownes
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(1) 117 –130
Can Celebrities Set the Agenda?
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919869530
Anthony J. Nownes1
Why do some issues make it on to the public agenda while others do not? While this question has received a great deal
of research attention, a definitive answer remains elusive. In this paper, I conduct a posttest only, control group survey
experiment to test the hypothesis that popular celebrities can increase the chances that an issue jumps from the
media agenda to the public agenda by speaking out publicly about the importance of the issue. My results confirm the
hypothesis. By “spotlighting” certain issues, popular celebrities can indeed affect which issues reach the public agenda.
celebrities and politics, entertainment and politics, agenda setting, popular culture
It is well established that the media have the power to set
First-Level Agenda Setting
the public agenda—that is, to focus people’s attention on
some issues rather than others. This is important for pub-
Few findings in political science and policy studies are as
lic policy because if an issue is not on the public agenda,
robust and well supported as this one: the news media
it may not be acted upon by the government. However,
profoundly affect the public agenda (Iyengar and Kinder
not all issues covered by the media manage to achieve
2010; McCombs 2014; McCombs and Reynolds 2002;
public salience. For example, agenda-setting expert
McCombs and Shaw 1972; Miller 2007; Rogers and
Maxwell McCombs (2011) notes that despite extensive
Dearing 1988; Shaw and Martin 1992; Wanta and
media coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal late in
Ghanem 2007). By dint of their agenda-setting power,
the Clinton Administration, most Americans never news media are crucially important in the policy process,
thought the scandal was particularly important. Why do
as many theories of the process assign an important role
some issues that make it onto the media agenda manage
to the public agenda. Unless an issue makes it onto the
to make it onto the public agenda while others do not?
public agenda, the story goes, it is unlikely to be acted
This is the question I address here, focusing on the role
upon by the government.
of celebrities in the agenda-setting process. Specifically,
As media are such important (though hardly the only)
I test the notion that celebrities can increase the chances
agenda setters, the question of how some issues reach the
that an issue on the media agenda reaches the public
media agenda while others do not has received a great
agenda by speaking out about the importance of that
deal of scholarly consideration. Studies of media agenda
issue. I do this via a posttest only, control group survey
building in this vein (including the germinal Shoemaker
and Reese 2014) find that several factors affect whether
or not an issue reaches the media agenda, including
whether or not the issue has far-reaching implications for
Agenda Setting and Celebrities
many people, the extent to which the issue has a purport-
There is not a single “agenda,” rather there are numerous
edly ready-made solution, and the extent to which the
agendas. Here, I am particularly interested in two agen-
issue is already being dealt with by the government (see
das: (1) The media agenda, which comprises issues that
also Kingdon 1995; Lim 2006; McCombs and Bell 1996).
receive prominent attention in the news media and (2)
The public agenda (Gerston 2015, 48), which consists of
1The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA
issues that the public deems the most important issues for
discussion and government action at any given time.
Corresponding Author:
There are also various institutional agendas (e.g., the
Anthony J. Nownes, Department of Political Science, The University
of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1001 McClung Tower, Knoxville, TN 37996,
president’s agenda and the congressional agenda), but
they are not the topics of this paper.

Political Research Quarterly 74(1)
Finally, focusing events can put an issue on the media
issues make it onto the media agenda. Together, these
agenda (Birkland 1998; Cobb and Elder 1972), and tal-
two findings beg the following question: if celebrities
ented and resourceful policy entrepreneurs can find ways
can affect which issues reach the media agenda, can
to bring media coverage to the issues that interest them
they also affect which issues on the media agenda
(Cobb and Elder 1972; Hilgartner and Bosk 1988).
reach the public agenda? If celebrity attention to an
issue can help an issue reach the media agenda, it is
Spotlighting and Celebrities
quite plausible that celebrity attention can affect which
issues reach the public agenda. Here is how this might
Recently, one additional factor has been shown to
work. Imagine that a reporter is preparing to write a
increase the chances that an issue makes it onto the
story about climate change, partially because a celeb-
media agenda: celebrity activity. In a phenomenon he
rity or two has spoken out publicly on the issue. The
calls “spotlighting,” Mark Harvey (2017) shows that
reporter can write the story in a variety of ways. One
celebrities can induce media outlets to cover issues
option is to invoke the name of one or more celebrities
that interest them. Specifically, examining media in the story. This means that the story will say some-
attention to ongoing fighting in Darfur in 2012, and
thing like, “Climate change is an important issue and
debt and AIDS in Africa in 1999 and 2000, Harvey
George Clooney agrees” rather than something like,
shows that “celebrities . . . produce visible spikes in
“Climate change is an important issue.” The second
coverage in broadcast news and newspaper coverage .
story is just a story about climate change, while the
. .” (81). So, for example, when actor George Clooney
first is a story about climate change that features a
went to Sudan in 2012 and subsequently testified
celebrity. Here, I consider the possibility that ceteris
before Congress, met with President Obama, and pro-
paribus, the story that features the celebrity is more
tested at the Sudanese embassy, media attention to the
likely to affect issue salience among readers than is the
issue increased substantially. Similarly, when U2 story that does not.
singer Bono spoke out on the issue of African debt in
Why might we expect ordinary citizens to take their
1999 (via an op-ed in The Guardian and then a speech
cues from celebrities when deciding which issues on the
at the annual BRIT awards show), media coverage of
media agenda are most important? The short answer is
the issue increased considerably. In support of Harvey,
this: a growing body of research indicates that celebrities
DeWitt (2018, 87) notes that celebrities can “leverage
have real and in some cases profound effects on indi-
their star power to capture attention and mobilize
vidual political attitudes and behavior (for an overview,
engagement,” and Atkinson and DeWitt (2017) show
see Street 2012). In short, people take political cues from
that congressional hearings featuring celebrities are
celebrities all the time. For example, Garthwaite and
several times more likely to receive media coverage
Moore (2008) and Pease and Brewer (2008) show that
than are congressional hearings that do not. Numerous
Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama during
other studies more or less assume (but do not show)
the 2008 Democratic primaries improved Obama’s
that celebrities have the ability to affect the media
standing among Democratic voters. Similarly, Jackson
agenda by calling attention to their pet issues (Cooper
(Jackson 2008; Jackson and Darrow 2005) shows that
2007; Jeffreys 2016 but see Brockington 2014; Thrall
celebrity support for a cause can increase support for that
et al. 2008).
cause among young people. Nownes (2012) found that in
Beyond the work of Harvey, and DeWitt, the idea that
the midst of the 2008 presidential election, voters’ evalu-
celebrities can affect the media agenda has not been
ations of the two political parties were affected by their
extensively tested. Nonetheless, this notion seems emi-
exposure to information about the (actual) partisan lean-
nently plausible in light of recent research showing that
ings of two popular celebrities (actress Jennifer Aniston
celebrities have a relatively easy time commanding the
and National Football League [NFL] star Peyton
attention of chronically busy government policymakers
Manning), and that celebrity support for Hillary Clinton
(Brockington 2014; Brockington and Henson 2015;
during the 2016 presidential election profoundly affected
Busby 2007; Cooper 2007).
voters’ levels of anxiety and anger toward her (Nownes
2017). Most recently, DeWitt (2018), following
Can Celebrities Set the Public Agenda?
Brockington and Henson (2015), showed that media
coverage of celebrity advocacy efforts can lead people to
In summary, recent research supports two general find-
show interest in the subjects of these efforts. Numerous
ings. First, issues that make it...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT