Journalism seeks to observe and communicate what it learns of social importance, something called news, and in doing so is always in the process of creating a public by bringing it into synchronized conversation with itself. Theories of journalism provide explanatory frameworks for understanding a complex combination of social practice, product, and institutional arrangement. Journalism’s late 20th-century professionalized, high modern version, which is still recognizable today, has continued to change, particularly with the disruptive effect of the Internet, as it has evolved to absorb other forms. The boundaries of profession and news organization have been destabilized within this rapidly shifting media terrain, but still there remain productive approaches for systematically organizing knowledge around the concept of journalism. The early 20th-century perspectives on journalism—before becoming linked to the communication field and a more narrow media effects focus—were at home in the University of Chicago school of sociology, which emphasized community-based, multi-method participant observation. A sociology of news perspective resurfaced with more ethnographic research in newsrooms in the 1950s, and theories of journalism have continued to highlight the ethnographic method, especially in understanding the impact of technology on a more digitally-oriented journalism practice. A hierarchy of influences perspective, developed by Shoemaker and Reese, incorporates other perspectives beyond the ethnographic by considering factors at multiple levels of analysis that shape media content, the journalistic message system, from the micro to the macro: individual characteristics of specific newsworkers, their routines of work, organizational-level concerns, institutional issues, and the larger social system. At each level, one can identify the main factors that shape the symbolic reality constituted and produced by journalism, as well as how these factors interact across levels and compare across different contexts (e.g., national, technological). A hierarchy of influences model worked well to disentangle the relationships among professionals and their routines, and the news organizations that housed them, which cohered into institutions. But journalism has been newly problematized, destabilizing and restructuring both the units and levels of analysis in journalism theorizing. The networked public sphere is constituted with new assemblages: of newswork, institutional arrangements, and global connections, which give rise to new emerging deliberative spaces. Journalism theories now have as much interest in process as product, in assemblage as outcome, but still need to be concerned with the nature of quality of these spaces. What shape do they take on and with what implications for healthy democratic discourse?
Stephen D. Reese
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.