Agenda-setting theory holds that our perception of the importance of various issues can be explained by the way in which the media treat the issues; those items given great emphasis and exposure by the media are those that the public will perceive as important and those that the media does not emphasize will be perceived as of less importance (originally presented, I believe, in Shaw and McCombs, The Emergence of American Political Issues: The Agenda-Setting Function of the Press, West, 1977 and discussed in most mass communication texts).
Today we see this to an incredible degree, not only from the media but from the government as well. Apparently the media—the press and television, and the Congress of the United States want us to believe that Roger Clemens’ use or non-use of steroids and human growth hormones is something that is extremely important, that is of national interest, and that we should all be concerned with. Forget about the 3,950 American lives lost in Iraq—that gets shoved onto page 17; just focus on Roger Clemens getting shot in the ass with steroids. Forget about the 38,000 displaced families in the Gulf and the toxic trailers that the government constructed and that they now have to move out of. That too gets less coverage than Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee. Are we to believe that this is a good use of Congress’s time? Can Congress find nothing better to do with its time and resources? Personally, I don’t care if Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds or any other ballplayer took steroids. What I can’t figure out is why anyone else would care.
I suspect that if you asked your students to name the most important news stories of the week, the Clemens fiasco would rank high, higher than the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the crisis in Darfur, global warming, the loss of civil liberties, the government sponsored torture of prisoners, and the plight of the poor and homeless—to name just a few.