What transforms a disagreeable but widely accepted condition into an intolerable problem against which a society marshals its resources? How can social scientists and policymakers help bring about such a transformation for the issue of gun violence?
These questions were the focus of the conference "Mass Communication and Social Agenda-Setting," sponsored by The Annenberg Washinton Program and the Center for Health Communication of the Harvard School of Public Health. Speakers included public opinion analyst Daniel Yankelovich, who described the process whereby the public reaches a conclusive judgment about an issue; sociologist Nathan Glazer, who discussed the academic literature on how conditions become problems; and media analyst Maxwell McCombs, who explained the press's role in shaping public opinion.
Other speakers related how advocacy groups have persuaded the press to devote greater attention to such issues as AIDS, smoking, and drunk driving. Methods described include borrowing the terminology of medicine, as in the term "battered child syndrome"; using creative epidemiology to magnify the importance of a problem, as in the assertion that firearms kill more teenagers than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, and all other biological diseases combined; and using computer networks to alert grassroots activists instantly to new developments, as the antismoking movement has done.
Conference convener Jay A. Winsten, Director of the Center for Health Communication, recounted the center's designated driver campaign. Winsten asked TV scriptwriters to insert messages about drunk driving prevention, including the importance of designated drivers, into prime-time shows. Many writers complied. More than 160 programs have addressed drunk driving prevention, and studies have found that four out of five Americans are familiar with the designated driver concept.
The conference then sought to apply these lessons to the issue of gun violence. Mark L. Rosenberg, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, outlined...