Sociologist Kurt Lewin first used the term gatekeeping to describe how food purchasing habits of a population affected social change. After noting that not everyone had the same impact on which foods a population ate, he used “gatekeeping” to refer to those who transport, buy, and prepare food items because they acted as gates, allowing certain items to pass while holding back others.
The first to apply the term to news production was David Manning White (1950), who observed the news selection decisions of a US wire editor at the Peoria Star in Illinois. He concluded that “Mr. Gates” was “highly subjective” in his decisions (p. 386). The editor did not allow some stories to run in his newspaper because they were “not interesting” or “B.S.” or because he didn’t care for them.
Since White’s study, gatekeeping has been a popular theoretical framework in communication. Researchers have examined the types of content that gatekeepers allow into the media, the selection process gatekeepers employ, and the background and biases of the gatekeepers themselves.
The area of research has a rich and extensive tradition, but also has several shortcomings. Much gatekeeping research has tended to be descriptive rather than analytical. Research has described the content produced through the gatekeeping process, for example, instead of rigorously testing propositions related to the process. The term “gatekeeping” has provided researchers with a convenient theoretical framework for their studies, and some analyses deal with gatekeeping only by assuming that content must have passed through a gatekeeper.
A second common criticism is researchers’ tendency to view gatekeeping as a single stage in isolation from other factors. Pamela Shoemaker (1991), in a comprehensive discussion of gatekeeping, developed a model in which advertisers, public relations practitioners, pressure groups, news sources, and news managers all influence content. Gatekeeping often involves group decision-making, with multiple editors deciding which stories will receive prominent coverage. Audience expectations and production costs also influence the process.
David Weaver and Cleveland Wilhoit have conducted several studies examining the personal backgrounds and opinions working journalists hold (most recently, Weaver et al. 2006). In general, they conclude that the typical US journalist is male, Protestant, liberal, college-educated and middle class. Research elsewhere has noted similar demographics. A survey of journalists at the Times of London found that many shared news values but that cultural differences could affect their news selection (Peterson 1979).
Weaver and Wilhoit also found that journalists see themselves as much more than mere gatherers and disseminators of factual information; instead they see their role as interpreting what is news. Other survey research has found the same tendency, revealing that journalists incorporate sense-making and interpretation as key job functions, which arguably increased in importance with the emergence of the Internet and its unlimited volume of information.
Recent studies of content production on the Internet suggest that the role of gatekeeper shifts to the individual user, who has ultimate control over the information being received. A comparison of journalists’ weblogs and news stories (Singer 2005), however, found that journalistic standards appear to persist online. Although expressions of opinion appear in blogs, journalists seek to retain their gatekeeping role by linking mostly to other mainstream media sites.
Scholars have applied gatekeeping to several areas of the newsroom. For example, an examination of visual gatekeepers, through a content analysis, personal observations, and interviews with photo editors, found that individual opinions, conventions, and organizational structure all affect the process (Bissell 2000). The study concludes that newsworthiness and objectivity were not as important as the subjectivity of the editors.
US television journalists surveyed about their attitudes toward international news indicated that two factors influence the gatekeeping process: market demands and local relevance (Kim 2002). Network journalists held a more global view of the news, selecting stories with diverse themes, but local television journalists tended to select international news stories with local angles. Timeliness and US involvement were important values for both groups.
Gatekeepers at international news media have also been the focus of research. Foreign news editors at the Times of London held news values very similar to those proposed in previous research (Peterson 1979). A recent examination of international news agency coverage of the debate before the Iraq war found that nonwestern news agencies included more nonwestern viewpoints (Horvit 2006).
Finally, recent studies have attempted to link gatekeeping with other theoretical areas such as agenda setting. A study comparing patterns for newspapers with either a large or a small percentage of females in managerial positions (Craft & Wanta 2004) showed that male and female reporters covered different categories of stories only in newsrooms with predominantly male editors. In newsrooms with a high percentage of male editors, men covered more hard news stories and women covered more feature stories, contrary to previous findings. A replication of White’s study with a female wire editor found no effects of news selection bias attributable to the editor’s gender, and another study discovered no differences in the sense of personal autonomy of male and female journalists based on the number of women in a newsroom (see Craft & Wanta 2004). Overall, studies comparing gatekeeper gender have produced mixed results.
Hundreds of studies have examined the news selection process, many published well before White’s (1950) initial work, such as Walter Lippmann, who wrote in his classic book Public Opinion about how the news media paint pictures of the world for readers to imagine.
More recently, Shoemaker and Stephen D. Reese (1996) proposed a hierarchy of news model, in which five levels of factors influence the content that ultimately appears in the media: journalists, their routines, media organizations, news outsiders, and society. Shoemaker and Reese note key studies at each level. Journalists can influence media content merely by selecting certain potential story topics while ignoring others (White 1950). Journalistic routines include strategies such as demonstrating balance and fairness, a process Gaye Tuchman calls a strategic ritual, which uses objectivity to defend the news product from critics. Management and the ownership structure of the place of employment constrain reporters by teaching them what is acceptable to avoid being fired and to win the rewards of raises and good assignments, through a process Warren Breed calls newsroom socialization. Outside influences, such as advertisers and news sources, affect media organizations as businesses that must make money to survive. Finally, social influences occur as media organizations maintain the status quo by providing only content that hegemonic forces in society deem acceptable and appropriate. Much of gatekeeping research is concentrated in levels one or three of the model, examining individual gatekeepers and media organizations.
Gatekeeping has an important influence on the information available to the public, as several studies have shown. Guido Stempel (1985) compared news content from several US newspapers and found that a few publications, notably the New York Times, influence the news coverage of other media by acting as opinion leaders. Its morning edition has a significant influence on subsequent news coverage on evening broadcasts of US network news as well.
Several researchers have applied gatekeeping to international news flow. A metaanalysis of the research found that traditional gatekeeper factors, along with newsworthiness, socio-cultural structure, and organizational constraints, affected news selection (Wu 1998). The gatekeeping process varies dramatically from culture to culture and country to country.
Online gatekeeping may differ from that of traditional media. An investigation of whether online newspaper gatekeepers provided readers with information identical to what traditional media provide found that online content tended to concentrate on local news (Singer 2005). Internet gatekeeping has also been examined in countries such as Greece, Egypt, and South Korea.
Research on the gatekeeping process grows in importance as researchers move away from traditional media to examine content and the production process with information on the Internet. A focus on the production and the producers of media messages has had much to offer for half a century, and gatekeeping will likely continue as an important theoretical framework in mass communication research.
- Bissell, K. L. (2000). A return to “Mr. Gates”: Photography and objectivity. Newspaper Research Journal, 21, 81– 93.
- Craft, S., & Wanta, W. (2004). Women in the newsroom: Influences of female editors and reporters on the news agenda. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 81, 125 –138.
- Horvit, B. (2006). International news agencies and the war debate of 2003. International Communication Gazette, 68, 427– 447.
- Kim, H. S. (2002). Gatekeeping international news: An attitudinal profile of U.S. television journalists. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 46, 431– 452.
- Peterson, S. (1979). Foreign news gatekeepers and criteria of newsworthiness. Journalism Quarterly, 56, 116 –125.
- Shoemaker, P. J. (1991). Gatekeeping. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Shoemaker, P. J., & Reese, S. D. (1996). Mediating the message: Theories of influence on mass media content, 2nd edn. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Singer, J. B. (2005). The political j-blogger: “Normalizing” a new media form to fit old norms and practices. Journalism, 6, 173 –198.
- Stempel, G. H., III (1985). Gatekeeping: The mix of topics and the selection of stories. Journalism Quarterly, 62, 791–796.
- Weaver, D. H., Beam, R. A., Brownlee, B. J., Voakes, P. S., & Wilhoit, G. C. (2006). The American journalist in the twenty-first century: U.S. news people at the dawn of a new millennium. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- White, D. M. (1950). The gatekeeper: A case study in the selection of news. Journalism Quarterly, 27, 383 –390.
- Wu, H. D. (1998). Investigating determinants of international news flow: A meta analysis. Gazette, 60, 493 –512.