The Most communication scholars are familiar with gatekeeping

The first half of the 20th century

 

The
concerted study of the media’s role in society emerged during the first half of
the 20th century, eventually becoming formalized as a distinct
research discipline under the heading of ‘journalism and mass communication’. In
the comparatively young field of communication research, gatekeeping is one of
the oldest and best-known constructs. The term has passed readily into both
scientific and popular discussions of the way messages are selected, created,
and controlled. Most communication scholars are familiar with gatekeeping as a
metaphor introduced by Kurt Lewin and studied empirically by David Manning
White. Gatekeeping is applicable to much more of communication research than
just its original domain of news editing. The concept offers interesting
insights into organizational communication and behavior and is related to
recent theories ranging from the psychology of choice and decision making to
the macro dynamics of ideology and social change. In the first part of this
paper, I offer a review of the gatekeeping theory that journalism and mass
communication scholars have developed to understand this gatekeeping process
that Shoemaker in 1991 called “the process by which the billions of messages
that are available in the world get cut down and transformed into the hundreds
of messages that reach a given person on a given day”

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The
theory of gatekeeping in journalism is framed starting from two axiomatic
statements: 1) there are an infinite number of the events in the world
occurring in certain spatial-temporal contexts, and 2) there is a limited
capacity of the press in reflecting these events. The two axioms entail the
obvious conclusion that the press will have to make a certain selection in
reporting the events in the form of news. The place where the process of
selection occurs is called “gate”, and the person who oversees the activity of
selection is the “gatekeeper”. Gatekeeping theory argues that there are forces
that constrain or enable the movement of information through news production
channels (Shoemaker 1991). This is not linear. After an event occurs,
information about it is then chosen by a journalist and is entered into media channels;
then, as it passes through the gates and is affected by multiple levels of
influence, a frame and a story is crafted (Shoemaker and Vos 2009). This
information can pass through several gates, which are decision points that
allow gatekeepers to choose which information passes through to another gate
manned by a gatekeeper. The larger the newsroom, the more gates information
must pass through before it becomes news (Gans 1979; Tuchman 1978).

Sociologist
Kurt Lewin introduced the concept of gatekeeping. However, Lewin’s original
model did not explain construction of news processes but rather the channels
food went through to move from gardens or stores to dining room tables. He
explained a process that highlighted the gates food must go through to make it
to the table (Shoemaker and Vos 2009). Lewin also identified two distinct
channels for food to arrive at its final destination: the buying and the
gardening channels (Lewin 1947). For Lewin, the gatekeeper was the person or
persons buying, transporting, and preparing the food items (Shoemaker et
al.2001, 235). While Lewin’s research supports the notion that he had thought
of applying gatekeeping to the media, the first academic to actually apply Lewin’s
theory to mass communication research was his student David Manning White (Singer
2001). White (1950) examined how a wire editor at a midsized newspaper chose and
discarded certain stories for the newspaper. But influences on news content operate
beyond just the individual level that White (1950) had begun to investigate.
Studying gatekeeping can be theoretically divided into five levels of analysis:
the individual, the communication routines, the organizational, the social
institutional, and social system levels (Shoemaker and Reese 2014; Shoemaker and
Vos 2009). Understanding the numerous influences on news coverage necessitates
separating the world studied into theoretical levels of analysis: ‘These order
the world into a hierarchy that can help us study communication and build
theory'(Shoemaker and Vos 2009, 31).

As
Shoemaker and Reese conceived of it, then, the gatekeeping process should be
studied at five micro-, mezzo-, and macro-levels of analysis. Each level
represents a different set of factors that can be analysed as level of
influence on the construction of the content of the few mass media news outlets
that could efficiently reach the public in the 20th century media
system. At the first level of influence is the individual level, the level that White’s original study
identified when he conceptualized newspaper editors as the sole gatekeepers in
the process. The remaining levels of influence that they identified included the
media routines level, the organizational level, the extra media level, later renamed the institution level, and the ideological level, later renamed the social system level.

The
individual level involves studying actual communication workers or journalists
and how their individual characteristics affect news production. The
communication routines level focuses on practices, procedures, and news values
that guide daily news operations. The organizational level examines media
ownership and other economic and organizational variables. The social
institutional level looks at influence from outside organizations such as public
relations firms or the government. Finally, the social system level examines
constructs such as culture. These levels are assumed to exist in a hierarchy,
which, helps organize an array of eclectic research by directing us to the
level or perspective at which explanation is primarily sought'(Shoemaker and
Reese 2014, 12).

Gatekeeping scholars point to these levels of analysis as the
multivariate, collective influences involved in the construction of the news
that reaches the public through mass media outlets. That is, for one,
individual journalism professionals can be understood to have some small degree
of independent influence on deciding the news in mass media outlets. But they
are additionally constrained by somewhat standardized routines and norms. The
content of news is also further influenced by the unique professional
conditions of their newsrooms. It is also constrained and influenced by
powerful influences from the ownership structure, advertisers, politicians, or
shareholders. And finally, the overall social culture where the news is
published also influences the content of the news media.

In her original full conception of gatekeeping theory, Shoemaker
suggested 2 basic “channels” in the gatekeeping process that information must
travel through before ultimately reaching the public: the media channel and the
source channel. The media channel represents the channel in which journalism
professionals and news organizations communicate their version of the news,
including whether or not certain information appears in the daily news and how
it is presented. The source channels in the pre-internet era, then, represented
the only avenue for the voices of various people and organizations not
affiliated with media organizations to have their voices directly heard within
the media of the public sphere-as sources of information about events that
media professionals deemed newsworthy. Notably, news organizations had
oversight of both channels of news within the media system that existed until
the development of the media environment. In the recent book Gatekeeping
Theory, Shoemaker and Vos suggest a new “audience channel” for the
structure of gatekeeping theory to account for the changes to the traditional
gatekeeping process that have come about through the development of the
internet and its associated technologies. It is through this audience channel
of access made possible by the various developing internet-centred
technologies, they argue, that the voices of people and audiences unaffiliated
with major media organizations now have a direct voice that can be heard in the
public sphere.

While Shoemaker’s 20th century conceptualization of
gatekeeping theory offered a suitable descriptive fit for the media system of
that era, Shoemaker and Vos’s most recent reconsideration of the structure of
the gatekeeping process falls short of offering a sufficient update of the
theory. Specifically, their recent updates do not fully account for the changes
in the gatekeeping process that have arisen during the evolution of the
internet and its associated technologies. The fundamental problem with their
new model for how information flows within the gatekeeping process is its
conceptual foundation in the basic linear transmission model of communication
or “audiences and effects” tradition 20 that underlies traditional mass
communication research. This approach to studying the media was appropriate for
a 20th century media system that saw the flow of information as
essentially unidirectional, with limited opportunities for controlled audience
feedback. The most basic problematic with their reconsideration, then, is that
it does not account for the interactive, network component within the
developing media environment. Conceptualized this way, extant gatekeeping
theory cannot capture the interactive structure of a news diffusion process
that now occurs through the fluid relational interplay between the various incumbent
and emergent players in networked gatekeeping process.

But does the ongoing transformation of the underlying structure of
the 21st century media system mean then, as Shoemaker and Vos write
in their most recent book, that “everybody is a gatekeeper” in a networked
media environment? Or does it mean, as Williams and Carpini  suggest, that “there are no longer
gatekeepers” in the 21st century? Doesn’t the open nature of the
internet mean that the gatekeeper concept has become irrelevant? Political scientist
Matthew Hindman identified an important part of the picture when he said the
following about the idea of gatekeeping within today’s media system:

Gates and gatekeepers remain a critical part of the information
landscape, even in the Internet age. Some ways in which online information is
filtered are familiar, as traditional news organizations and broadcast
companies are prominent on the Web. Other aspects of online filtering are
novel. Search engines and portal Web sites are an important force, yet a key
part of their role is to aggregate thousands of individual gatekeeping
decisions made by others. Ultimately, the Internet is not eliminating
exclusivity in political life; instead, it is shifting the bar of exclusivity
from the production to the filtering of … information (p. 13).

But Hindman does not deeply discuss gatekeeping as a theory of the
news media, nor does he get into discussions of the structural patterns of
networks that researchers across various scientific disciplines have
consistently observed over the years. He also does not delve into the
gatekeeping process vis-a-vis social network sites. Thus, his analysis leaves
open the question of how to understand gatekeeping with the structure of an
open, networked media environment in which everyone has access to tools for
public broadcast. According to this view, the basic technological connectedness
of all computers via the internet is taken to mean that everyone is on equal
footing in the networked public communication model.

This notion that the internet makes the gatekeeper concept
irrelevant amounts to a conception of the internet as a social network that-in
graph theory parlance-approaches what would be considered a “completely
connected network.” According to Monge, Heiss, and Margolin 31, in a
completely connected network there are links between all of the pairs of the
network’s nodes. Thus, a completely connected network is a symmetrically
structured network in which all of the node are connected to one another. Similar
to this idea in which the internet is conceived of as approaching a completely
connected network is the paradigm proposed by Erdos and Renyi for the study of
networks. Their hypothesis was that graph structure is inherently random. As
Fortunado explains, the idea that Erdos and Renyi proposed was that within
network structures, “the probability of having an edge between a pair of
vertices is equal for all possible pairs” (p. 76). In such a network, no one
entity is more likely than others to have greater network centrality or
cohesiveness with others. Like the completely connected network then,
envisioning network structures as random graphs posits that network structures
effectively equalize group structure.

Barabasi and Albert and subsequent scholars have affirmed that the
structure of networks is not random at all. Rather, even amidst the seemingly
disordered flow of information through human social networks, there are
relatively consistent patterns that we can rely on observing within most any
network structure. Specifically, as Barabasi and Albert note, over time and
through the use of advanced computerized data analysis, we have learned that
networks of all kinds including networks comprised of connected nerve cells, of
online hyperlinks, or of human interactions mediated by the internet are
structured according to what is called a power law or scale-free distribution.
In such a distribution, there are few actors that have relatively high
centrality but who generally have low overall cohesiveness to the rest of the
network. Meanwhile, many network actors-usually members of the general public-
tend to have relatively low centrality but high cohesiveness to a small number
of acquaintances. That is, the general public in such a conception of the
overall structure of the networked gatekeeping process would be expected to
form small cliques or highly cohesive clusters at the margins of a network.
Further, scholars have observed that within a given network there is a tendency
for a few relatively large subnetworks or clusters of nodes that are referred
to as “modules” that contain nodes that more frequently interact with each
other than with others within the network.

Scholars such as Faloutsos, M., Faloutsos, P., & Faloutsos and
Shirky have observed and documented the scale-free patterns of networks as
occurring within the structure of most any definable network connected via
internet-mediated communication technologies. In general, they note that the
natural human tendencies toward preferential-attachment to a small number of
network nodes within the structure of internet-connected social networks helps
to explain the power law distribution of relative prominence in networks.
Notably, this phenomenon reflects the same process that Hindman points to as a
gatekeeping function of media for the internet age.

Towards this end, it is possible to identify boundaries for active
engagement in the gathering, sorting, reporting, and dissemination of news
processes that make up some portion of the gatekeeping process. For the
empirical study of gatekeeping, a first level of boundary specification is the
decision to collect data from some social network sites. Secondly, the
boundaries for a social network analyses that would help us to understand the
networked gatekeeping process can be further defined by choosing some
geographic area defined at the local, state, national, or international level.
Third, one or more keywords or hashtags that have relevance for the news within
the chosen geographic area can be used as search operators to collect the data
from a social network site’s API. This data can then be analysed towards the
purposes of identifying the most central actors in the networked gatekeeping
process-the “network gatekeepers.”

The
theory of gatekeeping has been a touchstone for research that focuses upon individual
elements of the model: the channel, the message, the (internal and external)
forces on the gatekeeper, the gatekeeper as an individual or as a group, and
the feedback. Some researchers have focused on the message itself, which often
is a secondary consideration in original models of gatekeeping and research
into the topic. Other researchers have focused on the result of the
gatekeeping, especially how the definitions of “news” sometimes lead to

a
final message that may be a distortion of reality. Each of these topics offers
opportunities for further research; the intersection of and the combination of
these individual elements offers still more opportunities.

 

Gatekeeping
theory has been a springboard to other mass communication theories. It happened
early with Breed’s theory of social control as a gatekeeping factor. Reese and Ballinger
(2001) combined discussion of seminal research into gatekeeping and social
control to reflect how those topics were influenced by the dominant paradigm of
the 1950s yet pushed into new areas for research. More recently, gatekeeping
has contributed to the development of other key mass communication theories.
Lasorsa (2002) identifies many widely accepted mass communication theories and
how they relate to diversity-related content; it is not a stretch to find a
relationship between gatekeeping and many of the theories Lasorsa mentions,
such as:

?
Agenda-setting. The theory says media help decide the saliency of information based
on what they choose to emphasize; gatekeeping is the process by which the media
decide what to emphasize and neglect.

?
Semantics and the use of language. As Bass notes that a function of gatekeeping
is to shape news into a “completed product” for consumers, part of that
function often involves settling on word choices.

?
Framing. Continued study into the ways that media choose to present a story
goes back to the Breed (1955) study of social control. Again, it can be argued
that this is a function of gatekeeping, as “news gatherers” collect stories
they believe will fit the frame of their specific news outlet and the “news
processors” who decide what to accept from reporters and how to present a final
product.

 

The
latest research involving gatekeeping theory continues to improve upon previous
models – and to consider Internet technology. Bennett (2004), for example, uses
a modified approach to gatekeeping theory to argue that television news (and
print, to a lesser degree) has shifted from hard to soft news, mostly for
economic reasons. In his analysis, he notes four news gates driven by the
reporter, the news organization, its economics, and the newsgathering
technology.

 

The
arrival of the Internet as a mass communication source has further sparked considerations
of gatekeeping in both scholarly research and in popular press. Singer (2001),

for
example, studied how traditional newspapers (now referred to as “mainstream”
media, or MSM in some Internet parlance) chose to link or not to link to Web
sites, and how those decisions forced more decisions by gatekeepers. Others are
Williams and Carpini (2000), who claim that gatekeeping seems to be passé – if
one information source will not publish something, another one (that is just as
easy to find online) will publish it.

 

Gatekeeping
continues to exist despite the new technology and the new gatekeepers, she
says, but only much faster. And studying the issue of how gatekeeping has
changed with the Internet – and how the Internet may be changing traditional
news gatekeeping – is a subject that will bear much fruit for the current and
next generations of gatekeeping researchers.