Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Manship School of Mass Communication

Document Type



Little research to date offers evidence for the “cross-issue agenda setting effect,” that is transfer of salience from media coverage of racism to perceived importance of immigration. Laboratory experiments afford the opportunity to facilitate causal inference in determining whether this cross-issue effect is due to a cognitive mechanism of spreading activation (as conventionally assumed in agenda setting research) or to a cumulative, affective process driven by perceived threat to a certain identity group. Observational data, on the other hand, allow to externally validate the experimental results beyond the constrained settings typical of laboratory experimentation.

This dissertation combines the strengths of these two methodological approaches by employing three controlled, laboratory experiments to test the psychological mechanisms at work behind the cross-issue effect. I then complement the results from the experiments with analyses of publicly available opinion data from Gallup polls’ most important problems questions paired with a content analysis of news coverage of racism in the New York Times over multiple years. The results from the experiments show that the cross-issue effect is hard to reproduce in laboratory settings and that the cognitive mechanisms assumed in agenda setting theory (spreading activation and agenda cueing) are not responsible for this phenomenon to occur. Nonsignificant results from the correlational analyses also indicate that the cross-issue effect is rare and does not automatically occur in real settings.

Together, these findings assert that the remaining explanation behind the cross-issue effect is a cumulative, affective mechanism based on perceived threat to a group identity. Exposure to what are perceived to be repeated complaints about racism is taken as an implicit attack to the ingroup by some individuals, resulting in a defensive response manifesting as hostility to outgroups in the form of opposition to immigration. This conclusion offers an improved theorization of the phenomenon under investigation with important implications for both theory and practice.

Committee Chair

Pingree, Raymond P.