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.
Richard T. Craig
Tim Klein, Elisabeth Fondren, and Leonard M. Apcar
Throughout the ages, the editor’s primary role has been to connect writers with readers by deciding what to publish. In modern scholarship, this is known as gatekeeping. The stories an editor allows through the metaphorical “gate” can influence what readers find important—what scholars call agenda setting. But editors not only influence which stories are told; they also shape how stories are told, through word choice, story arrangement, selection of examples, photos, and the all-important headline; this is known as framing. Historians and biographers have written a good deal about individual editors—their publications, their editorial instincts, their altercations with powerful politicians, and their pursuit of truth, entertainment, profit, and influence. But there has been less focus on the broader changes that have impacted the work of editors as the media ecosystem has shifted. Cultural and social changes have created new demands on editors, who have had to adjust to stay in sync with audiences’ tastes and expectations. Technological invention—and the disruption of old economic models—have forced editors to adapt to new mediums of mass communication that serve new audiences and new financial realities. In short, broader economic, political, technological, and social changes have all influenced what type of editing has flourished and what practices drifted into the past. The Internet has posed an existential threat to editors as gatekeepers. Countless new gates that connect readers and writers have been thrown open, some with little to no editorial oversight. This is far from the first time editors have been forced to adapt to change—the history of editing has been a story of innovation in a continuing quest to find new ways to connect readers and writers. Today, despite the decline in gatekeeping power, professional editing still has an essential role—to curate quality out of the multitude of online voices and uphold a rigor for accuracy and truthfulness that can be easily overlooked on social media and non-professional news sites. Whether it is approving (or rejecting) a topic of investigation, copy-editing prose, fact-checking a story, arranging the home page of a website, managing a newsroom, or deciding which journalist to hire, editors play an integral role in shaping the information that is shared with audiences.
Pamela J. Shoemaker
One of the oldest social science theories applied to the study of communication, the gatekeeping approach emphasizes the movement of bits of information through channels, with an emphasis on decision points (gates) and decision-makers (gatekeepers). Forces on both sides of a gate can either help or hinder the information’s passage through a channel. The gatekeeping process shapes and produces various images of reality, not only because some bits of information are selected and others rejected, but because communication agents put information together in different ways. In addition, the timing and repetition of information can affect the prominence of events or topics and can influence the probability of future information diffusion. Gatekeeping was originally modeled as a series of linear processes within the mass media, but in the late 20th century the flow of information through the mass and social media began to interact. Information is now understood to flow among journalists, among social media users, and among agents of both types of media. All such communication agents are gatekeepers. In addition, we can study these networked interconnections as one level of analysis, with the supra-gatekeepers (such as Facebook or Twitter) adding their own gatekeeping processes over and beyond those of their own clients of the mass media. In addition to looking at various pairwise relationships between gatekeepers, gatekeeping theory should go beyond to instead consider the entire web of gatekeepers as a whole or system. A system is composed of elements (gatekeepers), interactions (relationships among them), and a goal or function. Multiple functions have been proposed by 20th-century scholars (such as socialization, entertainment, or surveillance) for the mass media, but scholars should now consider the function(s) of the gatekeeping system (mass and social media, as well as supra-gatekeepers) as a whole. Although each type of medium can be analyzed as its own system, such analysis would not facilitate new thinking about the various ways in which these partial systems affect one another and how the whole system functions beyond the simple addition of its parts.