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This study explores two sets of hypotheses: An increment in media use for political information corresponds to (1) an increment in community consensus about social priorities (first level agenda setting); and (2) an increment in community consensus about politicians' attributes (second level agenda setting). The analysis of first level effects, which largely replicates research conducted in the United States, shows that a trend toward consensus in an agenda of issues is also present among the Spanish public. Analysis of the agendas of substantive and affective characteristics of political candidates shows that the pattern of increasing social consensus is also present at the second level of agenda setting. Increasing consensus in the affective agenda of candidates' characteristics among different population subgroups suggests that the news media, especially television, contribute to more homogeneous evaluations of rival political candidates, leveling out ideological changes within democratic societies.
Mass media have a significant influence on the focus of public attention. Over the past 25 years a wealth of evidence has accumulated about the influence of the mass media on the contents of the public agenda, especially the agenda of key issues facing a community (Dearing and Rogers 1996; McCombs and Bell 1996). In channeling the agenda towards a relative unification of opinions about the social priorities of the moment, the mass media help structure a practical approach to public issues, which are both ranked according to their relative importance and limited in number. This situation allows the community to concentrate its efforts and to focus governmental and social action. Without a compact set of issues or affairs to be resolved, a set ranked as priorities, the functionality of society would be all but impossible (McCombs 1997).
Considering the short cycles of time in which the public gives attention to specific community preoccupations and maintains them as social priorities (Downs 1972), it is indeed reasonable to think that a society cannot function without appreciable levels of consensus in what agenda setting theory calls the public agenda. One also has to add that the number of issues the government, journalists and the public alike can address at any given time is also limited. The human mind (both `individual' and `public') has only a limited capacity to process information (Miller 1965; Shaw and McCombs 1977). Therefore a considerable social consensus about which issues reach the agenda is necessary. Perhaps the very possibility of society's existence as such resides precisely in this double limitation on processing and retention.
REPLICATING AND EXTENDING FINDINGS ON CONSENSUS AND MEDIA USE
Shaw and Martin (1992) concluded that greater consensus in the public agenda among demographic subgroups corresponds to greater exposure to the mass media.(1) Their study of North Carolina residents examined five distinct social groups, defined by age, gender, race, income, and education, in order to measure the consensus subgroup agendas as a function of frequency of contact with the news media.
The clearest tendency toward consensus as the frequency of daily newspaper reading increased was found between men and women. Similar tendencies were found with respect to differences in race and age, although no appreciable increase in consensus between income or education groups was found. This last finding was explained by relatively high levels of consensus among the education subgroups at all reading levels. Shaw and Martin also found similar patterns of consensus in limited comparisons of the same subgroups when their television viewing habits were considered. However, the television analysis was based only on survey data, while the newspaper analysis considered both the level of correspondence between subgroup agendas measured in the survey and the match of each subgroup agenda with the newspaper agenda measured in a content analysis.
Additional evidence of consensus as an outcome of media exposure was found in Taiwan (Chiang 1995), where the sample was divided according to gender, income, and education. For each of the three demographic comparisons consensus increased with newspaper reading. But the effects of television viewing found in the North Carolina study were not replicated, perhaps due to tight governmental control of television broadcasting in Taiwan.
The effects of television on community consensus still need to be tested since neither Shaw and Martin's nor Chiang's study yielded a full comparison of newspapers' and television's role in the achievement of consensus. It should be noted that newspapers are frequently regarded as more influential than television in setting the agenda of the public (Shaw and …