How to Understand Agenda Setting and Food Shortage
How to understand agenda setting and food shortage may seem like an odd topic for someone who writes about pain management. Here is the thing. It’s 2018, and this year one of the main focus for this website will be exploring more news stories as they affect pain sufferers. I am doing this because many of my readers have expressed an interest in keeping up with the news and want to be in the know. They don’t want their pain to keep them from connecting with the issues that everyone is talking about.
In short, most pain sufferers are curious and have opinions about what’s going on in the world just like you. This post is an outlet for that curiosity.
A big issue that came up in 2017 and seemed to make a splash again in 2018 is news media and agenda setting. Without a firm grasp of how agenda setting works, one can fall prey to those who think all news is “fake” and to those who believe all news is beyond question.
The truth of the matter is that a persons personal experience determine how well the agenda setting works. In this 2 part series of posts, I’ll take a look at agenda setting and food shortage. I will also examine the issue of agenda setting and the pharmaceutical industry. When I’m done you’ll have a solid understanding of how opposite sides of an issue use agenda setting.
Let’s jump in
Is there a food shortage in the world, and do droughts or floods cause it? According to newspaper and television accounts, famine appears to afflict most of the third world because of a food shortage caused by droughts or floods.
For example, look at the following excerpt from Newsday:
More than 10 million people are affected by droughts in the horn of Africa and aid agencies said that number could rise to 14 million unless help arrives .
So without making any kinds of judgement, let’s examine whether agenda setting by the media has caused the public to believe that the world is in a constant food crisis.
What is Agenda Setting?
The agenda-setting function of the media refers to the media’s capability, through repeated news coverage, of raising the importance of an issue in the public’s mind. 
For instance, the media’s coverage of the O.J. Simpson case through front-page articles, breaking news on cable, and special news programing was successful at telling us what to think about.
Now We Can Tackle The Issue of World Food Shortage
Two cases give different conclusions about the world food shortage. In one case, Bangladesh, the agenda -setting function of the news media is evident. The news media wants us to think about the following:
- Starvation is a result of food shortage, and action is needed immediately.
- Harvest-destroying floods cause the food shortage.
On the other hand, the power of agenda setting is in question when it comes to the case of Somalia. The presentation of starving Somalian children in television news moved the United States to intervene for humanitarian reason. However, a closer look makes it clear that for a long time the story was not what most Americans were thinking about.
In short, by studying both cases we can put the world food shortage in perspective.
Agenda Setting and Bangladesh
In 1974, the news media, led by the New York Times, covered the famine in Bangladesh.The following is an excerpt from an article by Kasturi Rangan.
“Researchers, however, found out later that despite the floods Bangladesh did not run out of food. In fact, rich farmers were hoarding rice. One peasant asked whether there was enough food in the village, replied ‘ there may not have been a lot of food, but if it had been shared no one would have died’.
Also, researcher Nick Ebersadt, in his article “Myths of the food crisis”, makes this observation about Bangladesh:
The cameramen who photograph those living corpses for your evening consumption work hard to evoke a nation of unrecognizable monsters starving by the roadside. Unless you have been there, you would find it hard to imagine that the people of Bangladesh are friendly and energetic, and perhaps 95 percent of them eat enough to get by. 
Finally, Oxford University’s researcher Amartya Sen, widely recognized for his studies on famines, found that famines occur not because of food shortage but because people’s claim to food is disrupted. For example, people’s income may fall dramatically because they lose their means to produce.
The West, including the Untied States, sent millions of dollars to aid Bangladesh. Thus, agenda setting by the news media worked.
Now lets look at the case of Somalia.
Somalia and The Limits of Agenda Setting
In the beginning of 1992, Jonathan Mermin, a lecture at Yale University, reported that “civil war and starvation gripped Somalia in the wake of the overthrow of Mohammed Said Barre, who had ruled the country for two decades.”
He goes on to state, “without any apparent cues from Washington, CNN sent a reporter to Somalia and aired eight stories on the crisis there from May 1st to May 15th.
According to Mermin, “in the first half of May, CNN presented the crisis in Somalia in the extraordinarily dire terms and explicitly criticized the West for declining to act.”
Furthermore, he states that “calls for intervention did not sound in Washington. Nor could that be heard around the United States. If letters to the editor are any indication, a LEXIS/NEXIS search of letters to none American newspapers turned up one letter on Somalia in May, one in June, and one in July.” 
Only after the Bush administration, out of political necessity, (Bush did not want Clinton to make Somalia an issue in the 92 campaign) put Somalia as its top agenda did most Americans begin to believe that the famine had to be addressed. The Somalia case illustrates that the agenda -setting function of the news media may be less effective, or not work at all, when it relates to foreign policy not agreed to by the government. It may be that in certain cases, where the issue does not directly effect them, the American people take their cues from the government and not the media.
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What happens when people take their cues from front groups organized by controversial industries?
This brings me to a recent trend in which the pharmaceutical industry uses agenda setting to promote its interest. This is the subject of my next post.
I like to hear from the readers so please leave me a comment below to let me know if this post helped you or if you have any questions.
- www.dialog.carl.org “Famine ravages Ethiopia: Fears of topping 1m deaths in ’84”, Newsday, Nov. 12, 2002)
- Severin, W. J. & Tankard JR. JW. (2001) Communication Theories: Origins, Methods, and Users in The Mass Media. Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.
- Lappe, F.M. & Collins, J (1986) World Hunger: Twelve Myths, Grove Press, Inc.
- Eberstadt, Nick. “Myths of the food crisis”—Moral Problems (1079) Harper & Row, Inc.
- See Note 3
- Ebsco Host Research Database—Jonathan Mermin, “Television and American Intervention in Somalia: The myth of media—driven foreign policy”.