Mass Communication and Policy Gatekeeping
- Richard T. CraigRichard T. CraigDepartment of Communication, George Mason University
Who filters through information and determines what information is shared with media audiences? Who filters through information and determines what information will not be shared with media audiences? Ultimately, who controls the flow of information in the media? At times commentary pertaining to media content references media as an omnipotent individual entity selecting the content transmitted to the public, reminiscent of a Wizard of Oz manner of the all-powerful being behind the curtain. Overlooked in this perception is the reality that in mass media, there are various individuals in positions of power making decisions about the information accessed by audiences of various forms of media. These individuals are considered gatekeepers: wherein the media functions as a gate permitting some matters to be publicized and included into the public discourse while restricting other matters from making it to the public conscience.
Media gatekeepers (i.e., journalists, editors) possess the power to control the gate by determining the content delivered to audiences, opening and closing the gate of information. Gatekeepers wield power over those on the other side of the gate, those seeking to be informed (audiences), as well as those seeking to inform (politics, activists, academics, etc.). The earliest intellectual explanation of gatekeeping is traced to Kurt Lewin, describing gatekeeping as a means to analyze real-world problems and observing the effects of cultural values and subjective attitudes on those problems like the distribution of food in Lewins’s seminal study, and later modified by David Manning White to examine the dissemination of information via media. In an ideal situation, the gatekeepers would be taking on the challenge of weighing the evidence of importance in social problems when selecting among the options of content and information to exhibit. Yet, decisions concerning content selection are not void of subjective viewpoints and encompass values, beliefs, and ideals of gatekeepers. The subjective attitudes of gatekeepers influence their perspective of what qualifies as newsworthy information. Hence, those in the position to determine the content transmitted through media exercise the power to shape social reality for media audiences. In the evolution of media gatekeeping theory three models have resulted from the scholarship: (1) examination of the one-way flow of information passing through a series of gates before reaching audiences, (2) the process of newsroom personnel interacting with people outside of the newsroom, and (3) the direct communication of private citizens and public officials. In traditional media and newer forms of social media, gatekeeping examination revolves around analysis of these media organizations’ news routines and narratives. Gatekeeping analysis observes human behavior and motives in order to make conceptualizations about the social world.