How to Understand Agenda Setting and Food Shortage

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.

This is a Photo of a Hand Holding The Globe

Photo of a Hand Holding The Globe

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.

This is a Photo of Africans Moving Through a Flood

Floods Worsen Food Shortage

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 .[1]

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. [2]

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.


This Photo Shows O.J. Simpson in A Suit and A Split Screen of The White Bronco in the Background

Split Screen of The White Bronco and O.J. Simpson

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.
This is The Front Page Picture of the NYT Featuring A Child Dying From Hunger

A Child Dying From Hunger

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’.[3]

Starving Children Waiting For Food Reach Out Their Hands

This Photo shows Starving Children Waiting For Food

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. [4]

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.[5]

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.”[6]

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.”[7]

A Screen Of CNN Breaking News of The Famine In Somalia

CNN Breaking News of Famine in Somalia

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.” [8]

This Photo Shows a Mass of Starving Children in Somalia

Children and The Famine in Somalia

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.



  1. “Famine ravages Ethiopia: Fears of topping 1m deaths in ’84”, Newsday, Nov. 12, 2002)
  2. Severin, W. J. & Tankard JR. JW. (2001) Communication Theories: Origins, Methods, and Users in The Mass Media. Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.
  3. Lappe, F.M. & Collins, J (1986) World Hunger: Twelve Myths, Grove Press, Inc.
  4. Eberstadt, Nick. “Myths of the food crisis”—Moral Problems (1079) Harper & Row, Inc.
  5. See Note 3
  6. Ebsco Host Research Database—Jonathan Mermin, “Television and American Intervention in Somalia: The myth of media—driven foreign policy”.
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid


  1. Peter

    Megan makes some very good points, and I can tell they are heart felt. It’s unfortunate but the way the system works often a lot of the food is hoarded by the big farm conglomerates and the very government agencies that are supposed to help seem powerless to do anything. This is the untold story that frustrates the hell of those who are really trying to end this misery of world hunger. But we can’t give up. We just have to make more people aware of what’s going on. You are doing your part with this post. Nice work!

    • Hi Peter,
      Giving up when people are starving and dying from hunger is definitely not an option. So, I am with you all the way. The problem is I think people are coming to believe that the problem of world hunger has no solution. Year after year they turn on the television and are bombarded with appeals to send money. “Hey, why is there no progress?”, they wonder. This is why we have to get all the information out there. People need to see the whole picture. When they have all the information they will be in a position to make a difference.

  2. Megan

    This is an amazing, thought-provoking, post. We all are moved by the sight of children so mulnurished that you can can almost count see the bones in the ribcage. The thought of people starving when there’s so much bounty in the world is heart breaking. Of course we all want to do something. That said, in order to truly solve the problem of world hunger we need all the information. If indeed food shortage is caused by famine and floods that’s one thing. However, if the cause is unfair distribution of food that’s another matter. We have to get the answer. Perhaps it’s both. Whatever the case, we need to know. Thank you for bringing so much insight into this topic.

    • Hi Megan
      This is a hard but needed discussion. As you say, we are all moved by the sight of starving children when we know that the world has “so much bounty”. Yet we need to understand all the reasons why there’s so much hunger and what are the causes of food shortage. One can accept the fact that famine and floods play a big role and still want to investigate other factors such as unfair distribution of food.

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