Why do some issues attract great attention, then disappear, and later reemerge on the social agenda? Which models explain mass communication's role in the process of agenda-setting? What do scientific research and social mobilization contribute to the agenda-setting process? And, in the words of Dean Harvey V. Fineberg of the Harvard School of Public Health, "What is it that leads to a social change in attitude from sympathy to responsibility for action? What is it that makes a social condition a problem that demands attention and response?"
Timing is critically important in deciding when to tackle an issue. Important issues that arise on the social agenda, such as gun proliferation, drug abuse, AIDS, and drunk driving, have a natural life history with fairly discrete stages that may extend over years and even decades. Gun-related violence is now entering an exponential growth phase. Which responses, including those involving the mass media, will be most effective in countering this epidemic?
These questions are important not only intellectually but also operationally for individuals and institutions seeking to influence media, public, and policy agendas. To explore these issues, The Annenberg Washington Program and the Harvard Center for Health Communication convened a national invitational conference in October 1993 to examine how various factors influence the content of the public agenda and the evolution of social norms, and how mass communication can be mobilized to maximize health through its influence on the public agenda, on social norms, and on individual behavior. The sessions brought together leading scholars, activists, public opinion analysts, government officials, and business and foundation leaders, and focused specifically on the prevention of gun-related violence.
The conference was divided into three parts. Part I presented an overview of current knowledge and addressed such questions as: When does a social "condition" become a social "problem" that demands attention and action? What is the media's role in the agenda-setting process? How is public opinion transformed into public judgment on critical issues?
Part II consisted of case studies that analyzed the development of three issues: AIDS, tobacco smoking, and drunk driving.
Part III of the conference examined the emerging issue of violence, with the goal of identifying opportunities for advancing the issue of violence prevention on media, public, and policy agendas.
We hope that the insights in this report will help illuminate future opportunities for targeted interventions.
Newton N. Minow
The Annenberg Washington Program
Jay A. Winsten
Associate Dean and Center Director
Center for Health Communication
Harvard School of Public Health