Edson C. Tandoc Jr.

12Journalism as Gatekeeping

Abstract: Gatekeeping is a popular and enduring metaphor in journalism studies. It has been conceptualized as a journalistic role, a model that describes the flow of news, and a theory that explains the process of news selection. Gatekeeping refers to the process of how bits of information pass through a series of gates and end up in the news. But aside from describing the complex process of news construction, gatekeeping is also a concept imbued with normative assumptions. Coined at a time when news audiences had a limited choice of news sources and journalists had limited space for their news outputs, gatekeeping had important implications and consequences on what pieces of information ultimately reached the public. However, the digitization of news has weakened, if not eradicated, such constraints. News audiences now actively take part in news construction and distribution, breaking journalists’ monopoly over news. Information about newsworthy events now flow through both journalists’ and audiences’ channels. This has important implications on how we understand and value gatekeeping.

Keywords: field theory, gatekeeping, journalism, news, news construction, social media

The news construction process has been described using a number of metaphors (Mindich 1998). News has been described as a mirror of society (Vos 2011); news work has been described as a filter (Herman & Chomsky 2002); news gathering has been said to function as a net (Tuchman 1978). A popular and enduring metaphor that both journalism scholars and practitioners use is gatekeeping (Shoemaker & Vos 2009). The gatekeeping metaphor has been used in a number of ways. It has been used to refer to a journalistic role (Janowitz 1975), to a model that illustrates the flow of news (Bennett 2004), and to a theory that explains the process of news selection (Shoemaker 1991). Since it was first used to describe journalism (White 1950), gatekeeping has spawned a significant amount of research, and even in a period when its relevance, or even appropriateness, is being challenged (Bruns 2005), gatekeeping remains a popular metaphor employed to understand and study journalism (Vos & Heinderyckx 2015).

The concept of gatekeeping “seems to have become so much a part of the definition of journalism” (Singer 1997: 73). It describes “the process of culling and crafting countless bits of information into the limited number of messages that reach people each day” (Shoemaker & Vos 2009: 1). The first study to use the term gatekeeping in a journalism context focused on Mr. Gates, a wire editor, who selected and discarded news items supplied by wire services, thereby controlling which foreign news stories ended up in his newspaper (White 1950). But journalism has changed so much since then. When police officers finally arrested the second suspect in the Boston Marathon terror attack in April 2013, it was the Boston Police’s Twitter account that broke the news first, ahead of any journalist or news organization in the United States (Keller 2013). This newsworthy information bypassed the news gates that used to be under the sole control of journalists. In a period when news sources and audiences can directly communicate with one another through digital platforms such as social media, journalists’ relationship with their sources and audiences is also shifting (Hermida 2011; Tandoc & Vos 2015). If journalism practice is changing, should the metaphors used to describe it change as well? This chapter provides an overview of gatekeeping research in journalism studies and examines its relevance and appropriateness to describe and explain a news construction process that is constantly evolving. It traces the origin of gatekeeping as a concept in journalism studies, proposes a mechanism to explain how gatekeepers become susceptible to influences, and provides a framework to understand gatekeeping through both journalist and audience channels.

1Opening the gates

Scholars use metaphors to explain what they study. Journalists themselves use metaphors even in ordinary conversations to describe what they do (Mindich 1998). The use of these metaphors is influenced – and at the same time can also influence – journalistic norms and practices (Vos 2011). For example, the mirror metaphor – that news is a mirror of society – was initially construed as referring to news as a means of self-reflection for society, but it was later used to refer to the long-discarded assumption of news passively reflecting social events (Vos 2011). Thus, how the mirror metaphor came to be widely understood reinforced the norm of objectivity (Mindich 1998). Others also described news work as a filtering process. The filter metaphor refers to how raw materials for news pass through a series of filters until only the cleansed residue remains (Herman & Chomsky 2002). News gathering has also been described as a net, explaining how journalists retain some information and let go of others (Tuchman 1978).

Kurt Lewin, a psychologist, is considered the first to use the metaphor of gatekeeping. Lewin initially used it to describe how food ends up on the dining table (Shoemaker & Vos 2009). In his original model, Lewin argued that food items pass through either the buying channel or the gardening channel before ending up on the dining table. These channels are each divided into sections where food items enter (Shoemaker & Vos 2009). For example, food passing through the buying channel will have to be discovered in a grocery store, bought, and transported home. Some items will have to be stored in the fridge, others in the cupboard. Food items enter through each section via gates. These gates are governed by a gatekeeper, such as a housewife deciding which dish to prepare, or by a set of impartial rules (Shoemaker & Vos 2009). The cook ultimately decides, based on a variety of factors, what to prepare, what items to include, and how to present these items. Therefore, “gatekeeping involves not only the selection or rejection of items, but also the process of changing them in ways to make them more appealing to the final consumer” (Shoemaker & Vos 2009: 12–13). In a manuscript prepared before he passed away, Lewin applied the metaphor of gatekeeping to the movement of news items through communication channels (Shoemaker & Vos 2009; White 1950).

David Manning White, who had worked as Lewin’s research assistant at the University of Iowa, built on this conceptualization. In the first empirical study to use the concept of gatekeeping in a journalism context, White (1950) asked a wire editor, whom he referred to as Mr. Gates, to keep all wire news stories he decided not to publish, and write an explanation for each rejection. White (1950: 384) considered Mr. Gates as the final “gate keeper” in his local paper who was “faced with an extremely complicated set of decisions to make regarding the limited number of stories he can use.” Based on his analysis of Mr. Gates’ reasons for rejecting wire copies, White (1950: 390) pointed out “how highly subjective, how based on the ‘gatekeeper’s’ own set of expectations the communication of ‘news’ really is.” White’s (1950) work would ultimately be considered pioneering in news production studies, introducing gatekeeping into journalism research’s lexicon. Snider (1967: 419) replicated the study by asking the same Mr. Gates to do the same thing 17 years later, finding that “Mr. Gates still picks the stories he likes and believes his readers want.” A similar study was conducted involving a female wire editor and found that Ms. Gates’ decision-making pattern was very similar to Mr. Gates (Bleske 1991).

But questions on the original gatekeeping study’s methodology and conclusions were raised early on. Gieber (1956) expanded White’s (1950) study by focusing on the work of 16 wire editors, concluding that wire editors were passive gatekeepers. Instead: “The press association has become the recommender of news to the wire editor and thus the real selector of telegraph news” (Gieber 1956: 432). McNelly (1959) also argued for a focus on news correspondents, whom he considered as among the “intermediaries” between events and readers. “The most important gatekeeping,” McNelly (1959: 24) argued, “is done before the news reaches the wire editor of a newspaper.” In pointing out the limitations of the original gatekeeping research, these studies also identified other gatekeepers in other sections of the news construction process.

White (1950) referred to the process of how news ended up on the newspaper when he applied Lewin’s gatekeeping concept to journalism. But Bass (1969) argued that the gatekeeping of news should refer to how news reading and viewing gets decided at home. Specifically, he argued that a “true transfer” of Lewin’s gatekeeping metaphor in food flow to news flow would have been in explaining “the family news obtaining pattern” (Bass 1969: 71). Brown (1979: 595) also argued that since White’s (1950) use of Lewin’s gatekeeping metaphor, “elements of the original concept have been ignored or interpreted in a manner which renders some of the findings questionable.” These critiques added to a more nuanced understanding of gatekeeping. For example, Bass (1969) argued that news processing should be differentiated from news gathering while Brown (1979) proposed a segmentation of news production into extraction, concentration, purification, and product formulation. In doing so, these studies helped further clarify what constituted gates in the news construction process by identifying specific sections into which pieces of information flow (Brown 1979).

2From role to theory

Notwithstanding the early critiques, White’s (1950) seminal gatekeeping study successfully introduced the gatekeeping metaphor to journalism studies. In one of the early studies on journalistic roles, Janowitz (1975) referred to a dichotomy between gatekeeper and advocate roles. “The gatekeeper orientation emphasized the search for objectivity and the sharp separation of reporting fact from disseminating opinion” (Janowitz 1975: 618). In contrast, the advocate role, which arose out of criticisms of the gatekeeper role in the 1960s, referred to journalists participating in the advocacy process (Janowitz 1975). This work, to a large extent, equated gatekeeping to exercising the norm of objectivity. Such a link was consistent with the normative assumption that efficient gatekeeping results in unbiased news, an assumption that would shape subsequent conceptualizations of gatekeeping.

Conceptualizing a gatekeeping role was also consistent with White’s (1950) focus on an individual wire editor as a gatekeeper. However, gatekeepers operate within a more complicated communication process. Westley and MacLean (1957) offered a communication model that incorporated Lewin’s gatekeeper. They argued that gatekeepers “serve as agents” of message receivers or the public “in selecting and transmitting non-purposively the information [they] require, especially when the information is beyond [their] reach” (Westley & MacLean 1957: 38). They also highlighted the role of feedback from message receivers in influencing both message senders and gatekeepers (Westley & MacLean 1957).

Shoemaker (1991) expanded Westley and MacLean’s (1957) model by focusing not only on gatekeepers and feedback, but also on internal and external influences on the news construction process. She “returned to Lewin’s holistic approach” by introducing levels of analysis of gatekeeping (Shoemaker & Vos 2009: 113). These levels range from the individual journalist to larger social systems (Shoemaker & Reese 1996). Shoemaker’s (1991) book renewed interest in gatekeeping that culminated in the publication of an updated version (Shoemaker & Vos 2009) that stabilized gatekeeping’s place in journalism research. The updated version also finally referred to gatekeeping as a theory (Shoemaker & Vos 2009).

3Levels of analysis

Gatekeeping is originally a theory of news selection. It describes the process of how bits of information about issues and events pass through a series of gates, get transformed in the process, and end up in the news (Shoemaker & Vos 2009). Gates refer to “decision or action points” (Shoemaker & Vos 2009: 15). For example, a reporter decides whether to cover a particular event or not. If the reporter decides not to attend the event, then it is less likely that any information from that event will enter the news process, at least for the news organization that the reporter is part of. This process, which occurs prior to reporters making a formal pitch to their assignment desks, is an action point and represents a gate. The reporter functions as the gatekeeper of this particular section.

Gatekeepers can close or open the gates, thereby constraining or facilitating the flow of information. They operate under several layers of influences that might affect their intention and capacity to close or open the gate. For example, Gans (1979) classified seven considerations that affected news selection: source, substantive, product, value, political, commercial, and audience considerations. Gatekeeping theory identifies five levels of analysis. These levels are parallel to what Shoemaker and Reese (1996) had classified as the five levels of influences on news: from the micro to the macro level, ranging from the individual, to the routine, organizational, extra-media, and social system levels. Influences on gatekeepers are supposed to operate in a hierarchy. A hierarchical structure argues that “these forces operate simultaneously at different levels of strength in any shaping of media content” (Reese 2001: 179). Many studies using gatekeeping theory actually focus mostly on its classification of five levels of analysis. Thus, gatekeeping theory has been used in many studies that did not explain or predict news selection. Instead, these studies explored influences on journalists’ beliefs, attitudes, role conceptions, and news practices (e.g., Agarwal & Barthel 2015; Canter 2013; Cassidy 2006; Tandoc, Hellmueller & Vos 2012).

3.1Individual level

The individual level looks at “how the characteristics, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors of individual people affect the gatekeeping process” (Shoemaker & Vos 2009: 33). For example, the Mr. Gates studies found that an editor’s personal preferences, such as his dislike for the Catholic Church, influenced his news selection (Snider 1967; White 1950). Gender also influences editorial decisions: Female editors tend to encourage positive news reporting and do not differentiate between male and female reporters when assigning beats, unlike in male-dominated newsrooms (Craft & Wanta 2004). Male journalists in Iraq reported higher levels of perceived danger than did females (Kim 2010). A survey of journalists in Iraq also found that younger journalists and those who have higher educational attainment levels tend to have stronger attitudes about access to government meetings than their older and less educated counterparts (Relly, Zanger & Fahmy 2015).

3.2Routines level

The second level focuses on routines, defined as the “patterned, repeated practices and forms media workers use to do their jobs” (Shoemaker & Reese 1996: 105). Fishman (1988: 14) described routines as the “crucial factor which determines how newsworkers construe the world of activities they confront.” For journalists who are confronted with an overload of expected and unexpected events and pieces of information, routines make their jobs more manageable (Tuchman 1972). News values, or elements that supposedly guide journalists in deciding what counts as newsworthy, such as timeliness and prominence (Harcup & O’Neill 2001; Shoemaker & Vos 2009), also operate at the level of journalistic routines. News principles, such as adhering to the norm of objectivity, also form part of journalistic routines, enabling journalists to make their jobs easier and avoid legal complications, such as facing libel suits (Tuchman 1972). Shoemaker and colleagues (2001) did a content analysis of news articles about bills filed in the United States Congress and conducted surveys of the reporters who wrote those news articles and the news editors of the organizations that published the articles about those bills. They found that editorial level preferences – and not individual characteristics of reporters who wrote about the bills – were correlated with the amount of coverage each bill got (Shoemaker et al. 2001). They concluded that routine level influence exerted a stronger effect on news selection than did individual level influences (Shoemaker et al. 2001). Cassidy (2006) also argued that perceived routine level forces, such as the influence of peers and supervisors, exerted more influence than individual-level forces on the professional role conceptions of online and newspaper journalists.

3.3Organizational level

The third level refers to the influence exerted by the organization, referring to factors such as an organization’s size, structure, or orientation. Breed (1955) argued that journalists get socialized into the news organizations they belong to. This happens through organizational policy, which can either be explicit or covert (Breed 1955). Berkowitz (1990) advocated a move away from the individual-level focus of earlier gatekeeping studies to focus more on editorial decision-making as a “group process” constrained by organizational factors, such as an organization’s newscast format. For example, Beam (2003) found that newspapers with high market orientation tend to publish more lifestyle and sports stories, and fewer news items on government and public affairs, than newspapers with low market orientation. Medium was also found to be related to content decisions (Maier 2010) and even to journalists’ role conceptions (Tandoc & Takahashi 2013).

3.4Extra-media level

The fourth level refers to “influences on content from outside of media organizations” (Shoemaker & Reese 1996: 175). Shoemaker and Vos (2009) called this the social-institutional level of analysis, referring to factors such as the degree of market competition; pressure from sources, interest groups, public relations people, advertisers, and the government; and influence of the audience. For example, Yoon (2005) found that how journalists perceived the legitimacy of public relations organizations influenced coverage of those firms. Where news organizations are located can also influence news content. McCluskey and colleagues (2009) found that newspapers in less pluralistic communities tend to be more critical of protests than newspapers in high pluralistic communities. Newspapers in high pluralistic communities tend to quote protesters more frequently than do newspapers in low pluralistic communities (McCluskey et al. 2009). Newspapers in communities that support the current President also tend to cover that President frequently (Eshbaugh-Soha 2008). While characteristics of communities can be considered as extra-media influences, especially when it comes to studying journalism markets, patterns that cut across communities, such as pluralism, can be considered as social system level influences.

3.5Social system level

The fifth level refers to the social system. In the original hierarchy of influences model, Shoemaker and Reese (1996) identified the fifth level as ideology. For example, one of the filters that raw materials of news must pass through, according to Herman and Chomsky’s (2002) propaganda model of news, is the anti-communism ideology prevalent in the United States before the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Shoemaker and Vos (2009) argued that the social system level of analysis involves more than the influence of ideology. They argued that this level refers to “society-level influences on news media content – those influences include social structure, ideology, and culture” (Shoemaker & Vos 2009: 105). For example, Hanitzsch and Mellado (2011) compared survey responses of journalists in 18 countries and found that journalists in less democratic countries perceived stronger political influences on their news work than did journalists in democratic countries. A survey of Washington correspondents also found that journalists working for organizations based in the United States tend to enact the disseminator role while correspondents reporting for news organizations outside the United States tend to enact the mobilizer and adversarial roles (Tandoc, Hellmueller & Vos 2012). But while social systems have been traditionally defined as countries with specific boundaries, they can be smaller or bigger than nation-states, as long as scholars can argue how a specific social system is being studied holistically (Shoemaker & Vos 2009).

The hierarchy of influences model is both parsimonious and elegant but it is constrained by lack of empirical support. There is an issue on how the different levels relate to one another. For example, Shoemaker and Reese (1996) arranged the chapters of their book on influences on media messages from the individual level to the ideology level. But in the third edition of their book, they reversed the order of how they presented the five levels of influences, acknowledging that “the sequence of these levels can be approached in different directions, and we don’t mean to single out any one level as more powerful than another” (Shoemaker & Reese 2013: 8). Furthermore, only a few studies sought to test the hierarchical relationship among influences. Studies have explored one or two levels at a time, limited by the challenges of empirical observation at multiple levels, only arguing which level exerted stronger influences and not exploring if these levels interact or mediate each other’s effects.

There is also disagreement on which level exerts the most influence. Gans (1979) had argued that source considerations influence journalists the most. Bissell (2000) argued that routine forces were most influential in the selection of local photos to publish. Shoemaker and colleagues (2001) found that editors’ preferences, not individual characteristics of reporters, were related to coverage of congressional bills. Cassidy (2006) also found that perceived routine level influences strongly predicted the role conceptions of American newspaper and online journalists. However, Kim (2010) found that individual level factors were the most salient in explaining the perceptions of danger among Iraqi journalists.

4A mechanism of influence

The “purpose of a theory is to explain or predict” (Shoemaker, Tankard & Lasorsa 2004: 112). Gatekeeping theory offers a simple prediction: Bits of information that successfully pass through all the gates become part of the news. But gatekeeping theory also offers a complex explanation to how news gets selected: Bits of information pass through a series of gates controlled by gatekeepers who operate under several layers of influences. Gatekeeping studies have identified various influences on gatekeepers’ attitudes, beliefs, and decisions. However, theorizing on the mechanism with which this influence on gatekeepers comes about remains scarce. “Because of this, a general impression from previous theorizing is that the media are always susceptible to influences, but journalists are also capable of resisting them” (Tandoc 2014: 561). Specifying the mechanism of how journalists get influenced will lead to a more realistic representation of the gatekeeping process.

Specifying mechanisms increases a theory’s “suppleness, precision, complexity, elegance, or believability” (Stinchcombe 1991: 367). This is an alternative to the so-called “black-box” explanation, where a particular variable is said to exert an effect on an outcome variable without explaining how and why the effect comes about (Hedström & Swedberg 1998). Theorizing and even empirical studies in gatekeeping have suffered from this omission. Studies would identify a level of influence as exerting effects on news content, but they would not identify how the influence comes about. Thus, a study that sought to explain how journalists integrated web analytics in their news work proposed a “mechanism of influence” based on concepts borrowed from field theory (Tandoc 2014: 562).

Shoemaker and Vos (2009) had earlier pointed out the link between field theory and gatekeeping. Lewin himself had referred to field theory in some of his work, conceptualizing the “field” as the “complex environment in which a phenomenon occurs” (Shoemaker & Vos 2009: 112). This is demonstrated in his food gatekeeping model, which accounts for the different channels and sections of how food gets to the dining table. Lewin, considered a father of social psychology, argued that behavior was the function of both the person and the environment (Martin 2003). This holistic approach is retained as field theory reached journalism studies through the work of several other sociologists, such as Pierre Bourdieu (Benson & Neveu 2005; Neveu 2007). Bourdieu (1998: 39) described the journalistic field as a “microcosm with its own laws, defined by its own position in the world at large and by the attractions and repulsions to which it is subject from other such microcosms.” A field is a site of struggle, as agents compete to either preserve or transform it.

The concept of capital is central to field theory. It refers to “the specific forms of agency and prestige within a given field” (Sterne 2003: 375). These forms of capital enable agents to participate in the struggle (Handley & Rutigliano 2012), differentiating one agent from the other in terms of relative power. Field theory refers to two main forms of capital: economic and cultural (Benson 2006; Benson & Neveu 2005). Economic capital refers to money or assets transformable into money (Benson 2006) and is considered as the dominant capital in most fields. In journalism studies, it has been operationalized in terms of advertising revenues, circulation rates, television ratings, and audience size (Benson 2006; Benson & Neveu 2005; Siapera & Spyridou 2012). Cultural capital refers to possession of competence in a socially valued area (Sallaz & Zavisca 2007), often operationalized as possession of journalistic excellence or quality as conferred by professional or academic groups, such as the Pulitzer Prize in the United States (Benson 2006; Benson & Neveu 2005). However, other scholars have defined it in terms of accumulated knowledge that can come in embodied, objectified, or institutionalized forms (Bourdieu 1986; Siapera & Spyridou 2012). Skills and educational credentials of online journalists, for example, have been used to assess the cultural capital of the online journalistic field (Siapera & Spyridou 2012). Thus, cultural capital refers to “such things as educational credentials, technical expertise, general knowledge, verbal abilities, and artistic sensibilities” (Benson 2006: 190).

These different forms of capital are also used to amass more capital, which can elevate one’s position in the field. News organizations, for example, would call attention to the journalism awards they win, a form of cultural capital, to bolster their reputation, attract more readers, increase circulation, and generate more advertising revenues, which are forms of economic capital. Benson and Neveu (2005: 4) argued that “organizations who dominate the field are those successful in converting one form of capital into the other.” Since journalists are rational agents (Fengler & Russ-Mohl 2008), they have perceptions of how much capital they need to dominate in the struggle within the field. Therefore, journalists “become susceptible to influences from various levels when they experience or perceive some form of instability in their capital accumulation” (Tandoc 2014: 562).

Instability can refer to either a perceived increase or decrease in capital. For example, a journalist wanting an exclusive story – a form of increasing one’s cultural capital – might be more susceptible to the influence of a particular source. A journalist who does not earn enough from journalistic work might also be more susceptible to accepting bribes. This explication of the mechanism of influence into perception of capital instability also allows the study of how influences from different levels interact. For example, resisting pressure from an advertiser who wants an unfavorable story removed might result in a decrease in economic capital if the advertiser eventually stops buying ad space, but it might also result in an increase in cultural capital since upholding editorial autonomy can boost a news organization’s credibility among its audiences and peers. Thus, news organizations and journalists have to weigh how influences at various levels affect the overall stability of their accumulated capital.

Studies focusing on gatekeeping influences can build on this mechanism of influence in explaining and even testing the relative impact of different forces influencing the news construction process. Of course, not every single decision a journalist makes is based on an objective determination and prioritization of increase or decrease in one’s capital. Indeed, journalists are socialized in their newsrooms, and part of that socialization process is the valorization of particular forms of capital. For example, the normative divide between editorial and advertising prioritizes cultural capital over economic capital, at least for journalists. Such norms in the field, along with the peculiar contexts where gatekeeping decisions have to be made, affect the way journalists perceive capital instability, which then affects how susceptible they become to particular influences.

5Gatekeeping in transition

The original gatekeeping study was conducted in a period when the newspaper was still the dominant news source. News selection then was crucial, for the newspaper had a limited number of pages. That meant editors, such as Mr. Gates, had to reject some news stories. The number of news outlets was also limited. Thus, news gatekeeping practices largely determined the range of news articles that had the opportunity to reach the public. Gatekeeping had to be studied and examined: “Channel scarcity not only justifies gatekeeping practices themselves, but also demands particular scrutiny of these practices: the power and influence of editors over the news agenda is inversely proportional to the number of available news channels” (Bruns 2011: 119). But the journalistic field has changed so much since then (Vos & Heinderyckx 2015). Some scholars argued, “it is high time to reassess, rethink and remodel the concept of gatekeeping at a moment in history where the empirical basis on which the original study was made has vanished” (Bro & Wallberg 2015: 102).

News websites and even round-the-clock cable news channels are now seldom confronted by the space constraints that limited newspapers. Instead, the problem now for many of these news organizations is filling web pages or airtime with enough news stories. The number of news sources has also increased dramatically. Outlets that do not produce original news articles but instead just aggregate what others have produced have successfully emerged (Bruns 2005). Some members of the public also take part in controlling news dissemination by becoming “active recipients” (Hermida 2011: 179), recommending articles to their friends by sending emails or sharing them on social media. Bruns (2005) referred to these practices as gatewatching, or the “observation of the output gates of news publications and other sources, in order to identify important material as it becomes available” (Bruns 2005: 17). News audiences also now engage in news production by sharing information about events they witness first-hand. They have become “produsers” (Bruns 2005: 2), being consumers and producers of news at the same time.

Shoemaker and Vos (2009: 125) proposed a revision to gatekeeping theory to add what they called the “audience channel”. They argued that “we must conceptualize readers as having their own gate, and they send news items to others in the audience when the interaction between newsworthiness and personal relevance is strong enough” (Shoemaker & Vos 2009: 124). Bro and Wallberg (2015) proposed three models to represent how gatekeeping had changed. The first model puts journalists between decision-makers and citizens in a linear communication process. In this model, journalists deliver news from decision-makers to citizens. The second model is a non-linear process, where journalists connect decision-makers to citizens and vice versa. The third model links decision-makers and citizens directly. Such a link is facilitated by the affordances of new technologies, such as social media. Furthermore, the third model considers that “the traditional news media might be gradually eliminated as the prime intermediary between private citizens and authoritative decision-makers” (Bro & Wallberg 2015: 99). Does this point to an elimination of gatekeeping?

Gatekeeping is in transition, but “transition is not termination” (Vos 2015: 11). For example, many legacy news organizations are holding on. News produsers have moved to social media, but news organizations are also increasingly becoming present in those spaces. Some broadcast news networks engage audiences by asking them to participate in social media discussions and then reporting about those discussions, thereby also exercising “second-screen gatekeeping” (Jensen 2016: 326). The overflow of information online also remains unmatched by equal attention from audiences. The virtual space for news might seem unlimited, but audience attention is not. For example, to keep their homepages fresh, online news organizations engage in a constant deselection of news articles that had been previously selected to give way to more recent – or more popular – articles (Tandoc 2014). This is because online readers are not expected to return to a website with static content. Gatekeeping now has to also account for this deselection process that was not practiced before.

6Amplified gatekeeping

The discourse around how gatekeeping is changing brings up the question of whether it is a normative or a descriptive metaphor. Gatekeeping in the context of journalism seems to have started as a descriptive concept. It aptly described what Mr. Gates was doing – opening the gates to some wire stories, closing them to others (White 1950). However, conceptualized as a journalistic role, gatekeeping also gained normative implications (Janowitz 1975). Vos (2015: 9) argued, “gatekeeping is not simply something that journalists and others do – it is often seen as a public and moral responsibility.” For others, the abundance of information easily and directly accessible to audiences online has turned gatekeeping into a metaphor that no longer accurately captures information flow (Bruns 2005). However, the same information context, where information of varying quality is overflowing, “reinforces the need for someone to sort it out as well as to lend it credibility and, ideally, utility” (Singer 2006: 265).

The arguments about the relevance of gatekeeping theory in a journalistic field that is evolving also outline how the understanding of the culmination of gatekeeping has changed. White (1950) considered news selection as the culmination of gatekeeping. What ended up on the newspaper is what came out of the gatekeeping process. The focus was on “what is allowed to emerge from the production processes in print and broadcast media” (Bruns 2005: 11). And yet, in the first page of the book Gatekeeping Theory, Shoemaker and Vos (2009) defined gatekeeping as “the process of culling and crafting countless bits of information into the limited number of messages that reach people each day.” The initial conceptualization of gatekeeping might have assumed that what ended up in the newspaper – what emerged from the traditional gatekeeping process – ultimately reached the public. But in today’s information-saturated media environment, not all news stories that emerge from all media gates will reach an audience.

Bruns (2005) divided the traditional gatekeeping process into three stages: input, output, and response. These stages were controlled by journalists, so that the “newshole is almost entirely closed to direct audience participation and contribution” (Bruns 2011: 119). But audiences now take part in each of these stages by communicating their instantaneous feedback through web analytics (Tandoc 2014) as well as through their news dissemination practices (Thorson 2008) and even reporting via social media (Hermida 2011), functioning as another gatekeeping channel that determines what messages ultimately reach other audiences (Shoemaker & Vos 2009) who no longer depend on traditional news sources for news. This focus on the audience channel seems to be consistent with what Bass (1969) had argued decades ago, that the proper transfer of Lewin’s gatekeeping metaphor to understanding news flow was to understand how news enters the home. Such a conceptualization is more focused on the audience channel. For example: How do parents control what types of news their children get to read? In contrast, White’s (1950) original study was concerned with how news articles ended up in the newspaper, focusing mainly on the journalist channel. This might have worked in the past, given the dominance of traditional news media. But the increased power of the audience has shifted attention to the audience channel. The overflow in information supply and suppliers has also made it both a practical and a theoretical imperative to focus beyond publication of news to actual consumption of it by an increasingly impatient and platform-agnostic audience.

However, focusing only on the audience channel will miss the complexity of the current news media environment, where news can travel in both journalist and audience channels either sequentially or simultaneously. For example, information about the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which later sparked massive and violent protests across the United States, first reached the public through Twitter, passing through the audience channel first (Desmond-Harris 2015). Legacy news organizations later reported about the incident following the outrage that swept social media, allowing the news to reach more people through the journalist channel. Thus, while audiences can influence the dissemination of news articles that flow from the journalist channel by what they share on their social media accounts (Hermida 2011), journalists can also amplify what audiences are disseminating on social media by reporting about it through their own channels.

The audience channel does not necessarily render the journalist channel obsolete. “That the audience is more active or more present in the construction of news in the age of digital media is not so much a change to gatekeeping theory as it is support of the theory” (Vos 2015: 11). Gatekeeping might no longer be exclusively controlled by journalists. But the process still exists, now increasingly participated in by audiences. The question now should be: What happens when news flows in both channels? The argument that gatekeeping culminates in messages ultimately reaching the public has normative implications, for it accords journalists – and now, also audiences – social responsibility. The presence of numerous gates, ideally, should ensure that only quality information passes through. The journalist channel, for example, is marked by the presence of numerous gates (Shoemaker & Vos 2009). But while the audience channel was initially believed to represent a more direct pathway for newsworthy information to flow to the public by bypassing gates controlled by journalists, a growing number of studies find that numerous factors also affect how likely users are to share information on their social media (e.g., Baños, Borge-Holthoefer & Moreno 2013; Cui et al. 2013; Hui et al. 2012). Scholars have found that only “a small number of retweeted messages are passed on to a large audience” (Hui et al. 2012: 656). This supports the assumption that information still has to pass through gates even in the audience channel. When bits of information pass through the journalist channel and then through the audience channel, they are able to reach more people. When bits of information pass through the audience channel and then through the journalist channel, they are conferred with more legitimacy. When bits of information pass through both journalist and audience channels before reaching the public, gatekeeping becomes amplified.

Fig. 12.1: While gatekeeping traditionally focused on how bits of information pass through a series of gates controlled by journalists to reach audiences, it also now accounts for how bits of information pass through gates controlled by other members of the news audience. But the same pieces of information can travel through both channels sequentially or simultaneously, a process that can be referred to as amplified gatekeeping.

Ideally, amplified gatekeeping should result in quality news reaching the public. When bits of information pass through both journalist and audience channels, they should ideally be subjected to more gates of verification, fact-checking, editing, and critique. But bits of misinformation have also passed through amplified channels. For example, Reddit users who engaged in a virtual manhunt for the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013 wrongly identified a missing Brown University student as a suspect (Kang 2013). This misinformation also found its way through the journalist channel after some journalists, who were watching the gates of Reddit users, tweeted about it (Kang 2013). A plausible explanation is that legacy news organizations, competing with a much faster audience channel, seem to be decreasing their traditional gatekeeping processes, prioritizing speed over accuracy. Future gatekeeping studies should continue to explore the effects of this emerging gatekeeping model not only on the quality of news, but also on how the public processes information that travels through both channels.


A basic assumption of gatekeeping theory is that news, before it reaches the public, begins with bits of information. Some of these pass through the gates of either journalist or audience channels and reach the public. Others do not. The bits that successfully pass through gates are assembled and reshaped into news. But changes in information and communication technologies are changing not only the conceptualization of what constitutes gates and who qualify as gatekeepers; they are also changing what constitutes information and what can be defined as news. Some information about newsworthy events reach some members of the audience through other audiences’ social media posts – but are these still bits of information or are these already outputs of a gatekeeping, albeit audience-led, process and therefore should be considered news? Some of these bits of information eventually enter the journalist channel and end up in what are traditionally considered to be news stories through journalists who are now also closely gatewatching the audience channel. Thus, future gatekeeping studies should also explicate what can be considered outputs of gatekeeping processes, whether through the audience channel, the journalist channel, or both.

Further reading

A comprehensive explication of gatekeeping can be found in Shoemaker and Vos’ (2009) - Gatekeeping Theory book, which updated Shoemaker’s (1991) earlier book titled Gatekeeping. Vos and Heinderyckx’s (2015) edited book, Gatekeeping in Transition, also presents a collection of chapters arguing for gatekeeping’s continued relevance in understanding news construction in the digital age. White’s (1950) gatekeeping study, which introduced the concept to journalism studies, provides an example of how gatekeeping theory is applied to the study of news construction.


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