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Communication Gatekeeping
by
Pamela Shoemaker, Jaime Riccio, Philip Johnson

Introduction

Billions of events occur in the world each day, but only a few of them become news. The process through which this occurs is referred to as gatekeeping. Gatekeeping theory is the nexus between two inarguable facts: events occur everywhere all of the time and the news media cannot cover all of them. And so, when an event occurs, someone has to decide whether and how to pass the information to another person, such as a friend, an official, or even a journalist. Many decisions are made between the occurrence of an event and its transmission as news: decision points are referred to as gates and decision makers as gatekeepers. The decision-making process is the core of gatekeeping. It is possible for anyone to be a gatekeeper—anyone who has information about the event and decides to pass it to another person or organization. In processing information and conveying it to someone else, gatekeepers consciously or unconsciously change the information. Some is withheld and the rest is not unchanged, as if it were merely squeezed from a gatekeeping sponge. Traditionally, the role of the gatekeeper was seen as that of a journalist or news editor. Today we see that interpersonal chains of social media organizations and their participants, for instance, connect with media chains in an entirely new way—moving information from one to another, overlapping the news media, and integrating into a new journalism in which reporters and officials have less control over the flow of information than they did in the 20th century. Individuals in the former mass audience have substantial influence as gatekeepers. Everyone constantly evaluates the importance of events. We are participant observers in our own lives, continually making decisions about bits of information. Whereas once we were able to tell only our social circles about news that was relevant to us, those who have the technology and skills to use social media are gatekeepers for people in larger and larger circles. This can result in sharing more information than was consciously or unconsciously intended. Multiple audiences now exist, some more influential than others, with gatekeepers of all sorts monitoring social media content to learn which units of information may be important to large numbers of people. For the first time since the invention of the printing press, individuals in multiple audiences control the flow of information within and across social systems. No longer can a small number of officials and journalists control decisions about which information is acceptable and which is inappropriate. The 21st century marked the start of an age of new combinations between the news media and social media, journalists and individuals. The linear, top-down path of the 20th-century gatekeeping process has been changed irrevocably.

Core Texts

Gatekeeping was one of many theories applied to the new doctoral-level academic field of communications, mass communication, and journalism in the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, the first PhDs in communication were graduated. Many degree holders became university professors, expected to teach and study their new field. They were influenced by the theories that had been introduced by their doctoral faculty, who had come from the social sciences, especially psychology, sociology, social psychology, political science, and anthropology. So it is no coincidence that gatekeeping’s father, Kurt Lewin, was a psychologist turned social psychologist. This interdisciplinary social science perspective broadened the study of mass communication beyond the narrow confines of professionally oriented journalism schools. The earliest texts mentioned in this section illustrate the type of scholarly works occurring in the same time frame that gatekeeping was proposed and that were influential in interpreting it. In 1927, Harold Lasswell published a study of propaganda campaigns in World War I to better understand the decision-making processes through which such materials developed. This study set the stage for later forays into gatekeeping research. Lewin’s gatekeeping theory was introduced some twenty years later in a two-part article in Human Relations (Lewin 1947). In this piece, Lewin introduced gatekeeping theory as a way to conceptualize the food consumption practices of post–World War II households. In his conclusions, however, Lewin notes that this type of understanding could be applied to media and news consumption as well. Shortly after the introduction of gatekeeping, the authors of Hovland, et al. 1953 studied the context of persuasion and its characteristics, revealing the influence of gatekeepers in message creation and its effects. Further research on decision making is found in Lazarsfeld and Katz 1955, which hypothesized the two-step flow of communication, namely that information flows in a top-down manner from media to opinion leaders to the general population. This top-down approach is prevalent in early gatekeeping studies. Schramm 1960 suggests that gatekeepers move information through both mediated and interpersonal chains. Later texts directed the study of news and its selection. A prime example is Tuchman 1978, which exposes the world of journalists and news selection. Tuchman 1978 highlights the gatekeeping processes used in deciding how to categorize and report news. Shoemaker 1991 introduced communications gatekeeping theory back to the world of social sciences. The author adapted Lewin’s original model to consider the influence from societal, institutional, organizational, routine, and individual practices in gatekeeping channels. Ten years later, Reese and Ballinger 2001 provides insight into the world of gatekeeping in an in-depth analysis and review of two of media sociology’s great works: David Manning White’s “The Gate Keeper” (see White 1950, cited under A Gatekeeping Model for News) and Warren Breed’s “Social Control in the Newsroom” (see Breed 1955, cited under Media Sociology). In the most recent iteration of gatekeeping theory, Shoemaker and Vos 2009 provides a sweeping overview of the many aspects of gatekeeping. This work not only includes insights into levels of analysis (see Shoemaker and Reese 2013, cited under A Gatekeeping Model for News) and unique gatekeeping concepts, but also brings gatekeeping into the modern age of the Internet.

  • Hovland, Carl I., Irving L. Janis, and Harold H. Kelley. 1953. Communication and persuasion. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    Hovland and colleagues were part of the first generation of communication and attitude change research. Their study examined the factors influencing persuasion, including characteristics of the message, the communicator, and the situation. This study discussed how message reception is affected by outside influences and reveals how the choices of content creators—gatekeepers—can directly or indirectly sway audiences.

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  • Lasswell, Harold D. 1927. Propaganda technique in the World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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    Lasswell examined propaganda in World War I in order to identify the procedures involved in organizing and executing propaganda campaigns. His study set the stage for scholarly communication and gave insight into ideas that would later develop gatekeeping research. The processes through which a propagandist operation was developed relied heavily on key decision makers and various strategic points in communication, foreshadowing what Lewin 1947 and White 1950 (cited under A Gatekeeping Model for News) would later call gatekeepers and gates.

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  • Lazarsfeld, Paul F., and Elihu Katz. 1955. Personal influence: The part played by people in the flow of mass communications. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

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    In this work, Lazarsfeld and Katz explicated their two-step flow model of communication. The book focused on a 1948 study conducted by the Bureau of Applied Social Research in which eight hundred women in Decatur, Illinois, were interviewed and surveyed about who or what influenced their decision making. It was discovered that face-to-face communications could be more influential than media communications, with information traveling from media to opinion leaders to the public.

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  • Lewin, Kurt. 1947. Frontiers in group dynamics: Channels of group life; social planning and action research. Human Relations 1–2:5–41.

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    See also pp. 143–153. In this two-part article, Lewin introduced the key concepts of gatekeeping as they affected social change in post–World War II food choices. He presented two channels through which food could come to the table—the garden and the grocery. For either channel, the cook was gatekeeper and, within each channel were sections (such as transporting food) preceded by a gate, or decision point. Lewin felt that this arrangement could also apply to the traveling of news items through communication channels.

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  • Reese, Stephen D., and Jane Ballinger. 2001. The roots of a sociology of news: Remembering Mr. Gates and social control in the newsroom. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 78.4: 641–658.

    DOI: 10.1177/107769900107800402Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article delves into two of media sociology’s most prolific works: David Manning White’s “The Gate Keeper” and Warren Breed’s “Social Control in the Newsroom.” Reese and Ballinger not only provide insight into these two perspectives to media sociology, but also provide background as to how media sociology and theories like gatekeeping came about in the first place through founders such as Lazarsfeld, Lasswell, and Lewin.

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  • Schramm, Wilbur. 1960. Mass communications. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

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    In 1960 Wilbur Schramm wrote that gatekeepers move information through “media chains” and “interpersonal chains.” He posited that human beings have the ability to intake information, evaluate it, and act on it, or not. Today we see that these chains and their participants connect in an entirely new way—moving information from one to another, overlapping and integrating into a new journalism in which reporters and officials have many more sources of information than ever before.

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  • Shoemaker, Pamela J. 1991. Gatekeeping: Communication concepts 3. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.

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    This book brought gatekeeping into the mainstream of social science research, considering influences on the process from individuals, routine practices of the news media, media organizations, social institutions, and social systems. Shoemaker developed a series of models to illustrate the many processes that affect gates and gatekeepers.

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  • Shoemaker, Pamela J., and Tim P. Vos. 2009. Gatekeeping theory. New York: Routledge.

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    This book is the most ambitious overview of gatekeeping to date. It applied the organizing principle of levels of analysis, but it also includes individual chapters on gatekeeping concepts. The authors also brought gatekeeping into the age of the Internet, a time when some scholars are suggesting that gatekeeping is no longer appropriate.

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  • Tuchman, Gaye. 1978. Making news. New York: Free Press.

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    Gaye Tuchman observed the work of many journalists for years, including at a major city television station, at newspapers, and in a city hall newsroom. She studied the processes and routines that were used by journalists to produce the news each day, and she noted that the categorization of news was necessary for journalists to manage their job. The assigning of a category, however, influenced how the event was covered. Tuchman’s work emphasizes that how an event is shaped in the media channel is largely a function of the routine practices of the medium.

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Journals

Because it is one of the oldest theories used by mass communication scholars (from the early 1950s), gatekeeping research has appeared in many communication and other social science journals. And because most gatekeeping studies are about news, journalism journals have published most manuscripts. White’s article about “Mr. Gates” (see White 1950, cited under A Gatekeeping Model for News) was published in Journalism Quarterly, one of the oldest scholarly journals in the field (1924 to 1994; name changed to Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly in 1995). Other gatekeeping studies have appeared in the Journal of Broadcasting (name changed to Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media in 1985), and Newspaper Research Journal. Gatekeeping also appears in more general communication journals, such as the Journal of Communication, the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Journal of Media Economics, Journalism Studies, and, most recently, the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. Gatekeeping studies have also appeared in other social science journals, such as the American Sociological Review.

A Gatekeeping Model for News

A “theory of gates and gate-keepers” was introduced in Lewin 1947 (cited under Core Texts). Lewin studied the process through which social change could be affected and decided that some critical individuals and decisions are vital. His model described how household cooks make most food decisions, and he developed a model to show how the cook could buy food from either of two channels—the grocery or the family garden. At the front of and within each channel are various gates (decision points) and the cook acts as the gatekeeper, making decisions about the food before presentation. Lewin also hypothesized that forces operate on the gates, representing influences on people’s decisions, either constraining or facilitating the movement of information (or food) through the channel. The totality of gates, gatekeepers, channels, sections, and forces are the field or environment in which it all occurs. In a brief journal passage, Lewin suggested that gatekeeping could also be used to study other social artifacts, including operations within an organization and decisions within a newsroom. Applying Lewin’s theory to communication required a somewhat different approach. Its theoretical development was constrained by the influential “limited effects model” popularized by Paul Lazarsfeld, which suggested that media reinforced audience attitudes rather than changed them. Instead of being used to explore the theoretical constructs suggested in Lewin’s model, gatekeeping was employed primarily to describe the production of media content. According to Lazarsfeld, et al. 1948, David Manning White, in “‘The Gate Keeper’: A Case Study in the Selection of News” (White 1950), was the first to apply Lewin’s gatekeeping model to the selection of news, analyzing an editor’s reasons for selecting or rejecting stories and following a gatekeeping practice similar to that of the household cook in Lewin’s original research. A number of studies after that of White, including Gross and Merritt 1981, began to apply gatekeeping on a wider scale, one that consists of various levels. Such studies were instrumental in creating a modern approach to gatekeeping. Shoemaker and Reese 2013 applies a theoretical model to synthesize gatekeeping research, examining how forces on five levels of analysis—social system, social institution, organization, routine, and individual—influence news reporting. A number of recent works apply the hierarchical model to gatekeeping, including Shoemaker, et al. 2001, which discusses routine and individual gatekeeping forces. With the advent of the Internet and social media, gatekeeping continues to evolve to include new forces, gates, and gatekeepers at various levels. A recent trend has dealt with audience gatekeeping, a topic discussed in Shoemaker, et al. 2008 and Cameron-Dow 2009.

  • Cameron-Dow, Joy. 2009. The question of crime: How much does the public have the right to know? Pacific Journalism Review 15.2: 71–84.

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    Cameron-Dow introduces a new and expanding area of gatekeeping research that discusses the power of the audience as gatekeeper. In her analysis of online news coverage of the 2007 disappearance of British toddler Madeleine McCann, she points out the power of the Internet audience in demanding what they want to know and how journalists incorporate those wishes into their reporting. In this way, the 21st-century audience has become a gatekeeper in its own right.

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  • Gross, Harriet Engel, and Sharyne Merritt. 1981. Effect of social/organizational context on gatekeeping in lifestyle pages. Journalism Quarterly 58.3: 420–427.

    DOI: 10.1177/107769908105800311Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Gross and Merritt examine organizational and social impacts of gatekeeping in their study of women’s or “lifestyle” sections in urban and rural newspapers. Their findings reveal some of the key elements in what would become a modern, hierarchical approach to gatekeeping research developed in Shoemaker 1991 (cited under Core Texts): social norms (in this case, urban versus rural settings) and editorial power in determining what will be included as news and what will not.

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  • Lazarsfeld, Paul F., Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet. 1948. The people’s choice. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    Published around the same time as Lewin’s original theory, this study examined the presidential election of 1940 through interviews with voters in Erie County, Ohio. By analyzing these local voters’ decision-making process, Lazarsfeld and colleagues discovered which factors influenced people’s opinions throughout the campaign. This book not only began the research emphasis on media effects, but also provided a basis from which gatekeeping theory could grow.

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  • Shoemaker, Pamela J., M. Eichholz, E. Kim, and Brenda Wrigley. 2001. Individual and routine forces in gatekeeping. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 78.2: 233–246.

    DOI: 10.1177/107769900107800202Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Like Gross and Merritt 1981, this study discusses two areas of the aforementioned hierarchical model of gatekeeping that most scholars use today. Shoemaker and colleagues examine the routine and individual levels of gatekeeping in newspaper coverage of congressional bills being passed. The authors further explore Lewin’s original idea of “force” in showing how the routine forces of the news media may be more important than the individual forces of journalists in reporting.

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  • Shoemaker, Pamela J., Philip R. Johnson, Hyunjin Seo, and Xiuli Wang. 2008. Readers as gatekeepers of online news. Brazilian Journalism Research 6.1: 56–77.

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    This paper brings to light the new power of audiences in today’s media landscape. By presenting the ability of online readers in Brazil, China, and the United States to make news events popular through clicking on, commenting on, e-mail sharing, and linking to articles in blogs, the traditional idea of gatekeepers as media professionals is turned on its head.

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  • Shoemaker, Pamela J., and Stephen D. Reese. 2013. Mediating the message: A media sociology perspective. 3d ed. New York: Routledge.

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    In Mediating the Message, Shoemaker and Reese compare and contrast popular research in media content, pointing out the factors that shape mass media. The authors argue that influences from the social system and social institutions, at the organizational, routine, and individual levels, together affect how news and entertainment content is produced. The ideas surrounding gatekeeping research appear throughout the book.

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  • White, David M. 1950. The “gate keeper”: A case study in the selection of news. Journalism Quarterly 27:383–390.

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    This groundbreaking study was particularly important because White was able to capture information about why many stories did not make it into the newspaper. (Studying the absence of something is quite difficult.) White found that the newspaper editor’s decisions were influenced by news values and his personal opinions. This opened the door for many scholars to study individual-level effects and those attributable to media routines.

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Media Sociology

Gatekeeping theory assumes a large theoretical scope, explaining not only how and why events become news, but also how information about events is acquired, shaped, timed, and positioned within the media before transmission to the audience. Some scholars have also addressed the effects of this process, looking at the media’s creation of joint symbolic environments and individual social realities. During the 1950s, research by David Manning White and Warren Breed examined the functional role of news institutions and journalists. Breed 1955 introduced the field to media sociology as it is recognized today and of which gatekeeping is a part. The 1960s and 1970s were a period of social unrest in the United States and, therefore, of interest to many sociologists who tried to understand the social roles of the news media. Cohen 1963 elucidates the agenda-setting function of the media—one largely dependent on how gatekeepers shape news stories. One could call the 1970s the golden age of media sociology, with many studies of how the media do their work. The social context was important, including protests against the Vietnam War and for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In Donohue, et al. 1972 the authors examine how the presentation and reception of information about events varies from person to person, with certain details highlighted or left out completely from news reports. Control continued to be a pertinent issue, and Sigal 1973 examined news and media control, analyzing the roles of government and of sources in controlling news. Other books from the 1970s and 1980s, such as Altheide 1976, Gans 1979, and Snow 1983, showed that the journalists’ job was to aggregate units of information into messages about the day’s events. Some journalists were assigned by their editors to create messages, whereas others were told to review messages from outside information purveyors. All messages entered a pool of potential news items, where they competed to move through the media channel and toward the audience. For example, decision points in the production section may have stopped or moved the message forward and manipulated it in various ways before sending it to the audience. As a result, people who witnessed an event may have understood it differently from those who learned about it from the news media, and the media often covered events in different ways. Today journalists and official sources no longer have the level of control over the selection (or withholding) and distribution of information that they once had. Today’s communication environment includes traditional mass media, some of which have moved to the Internet and adopted its interactive style, to social media with the immediacy that these provide, and to audience members who e-mail, discuss, and comment on everything. Once on the Internet, a long series of gatekeepers transmit information in a worldwide web, and the content can never be completely removed.

  • Altheide, David L. 1976. Creating reality: How TV news distorts events. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    Altheide wrote that events do not become news until they are transformed by the “news perspective”—the processes through which events became television news. He argued that the routine practices that turn information about events into television news stories were more predictive of an event’s newsworthiness than were its objective characteristics. He also wrote that this process inevitably distorted the event, which affected television news viewers.

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  • Breed, Warren. 1955. Social control in the newsroom: A functional analysis. Social Forces 33.4: 326–335.

    DOI: 10.2307/2573002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Along with David Manning White and his study of “Mr. Gates” (see White 1950, cited under A Gatekeeping Model for News), Warren Breed is credited with creating the traditional models of media sociology. While White’s study brought the idea of gatekeeping to the forefront of communication research, Breed’s work undertook the large task of analyzing the functional operations of a news institution. The selection of news for Breed had more to do with social control and the routine functions of the media institution than with the individual choices of journalists and editors (as with White).

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  • Cohen, Bernard. 1963. The press and foreign policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    In this work, Cohen pointed out that while the press may not always be successful in telling people what to think: “It is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about” (p. 13). Cohen believed that audiences see a different story depending on how journalists, editors, and publishers portray a news event. He discovered a pattern of message development in which a story is filtered through sources.

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  • Donohue, George A., Paul J. Tichenor, and Clarice N. Olien. 1972. Gatekeeping: Mass media systems and information control. In Current perspectives in mass communication research. Edited by F. G. Kline and Paul J. Tichenor, 41–69. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    Donohue, Tichenor, and Olien show that, because people perceive the world in general and specific events in particular quite differently, they may conveniently forget information with which they do not agree or they may present the information in a form that emphasizes some aspects of the event and not others. Some information may be repeated or the timing of information may accentuate it. All of this is gatekeeping.

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  • Gans, Herbert J. 1979. Deciding what’s news. New York: Pantheon.

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    One of Gans’s contributions was his identification of “enduring values” that appeared in the news. The work of Gans brings to the fore the issue of underlying cultural values that are shared by media and society and how such values shape news content. Enduring news values were not specific to the day’s topics but, rather, were assumed norms that made up the definition of news.

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  • Sigal, Leon V. 1973. Reporters and officials. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.

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    Sigal observed reporter and source interactions at two major newspapers and found that most national and foreign news came to journalists through routine sources, mostly from the government. He concluded that routine channels are the government’s mechanism for controlling news. Sigal’s book illustrates the tight connections between sources and journalists, including the ability of the source to control access to information about an event.

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  • Snow, Robert P. 1983. Creating media culture. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    In opposition to some popular research on the news media, Snow writes that the routine practices of news gathering can be more influential on news content than the vested interests of the powerful. By analyzing the structure of the media, he shows that such routines can have a direct impact on how audiences view the world.

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The Construction of Social Reality

As early as 1922, Walter Lippmann presented social reality as a creation of individuals and various media, which put forth a particular version of events. Lippmann 1922 describes the inability of humans to accurately and objectively interpret the world. He posited that environmental factors influence everyone’s social reality uniquely. Nearly a decade later, in Mead 1934, George Mead reinforced the view that a person’s sense of reality is socially constructed by interactions with the world around him or her. The media is an essential part of that. In the 1950s, a communications-centered concept of social reality was born when, in Lang and Lang 1953, the authors compared reports from people who were stationed along the parade route with people watching the parade on television. The people along the parade were their own gatekeepers, gathering information to discuss with each other or to tell friends and family. The television viewers, however, were at the mercy of the announcer, who assumed the role of a dominant gatekeeper and told them how exciting the parade was. Lang and Lang showed that the media reality deviated from the realities of each person’s experience with the parade. This simple, but clever study illustrates the effect of gatekeepers (and other elements unique to television) on the audience. Published shortly thereafter, Hastorf and Cantril 1954 had similar findings, showing that the reality of a televised football game differed depending on what team a fan was rooting for. Today there are many gatekeepers between events and audiences, and these gatekeepers exert a powerful influence over the picture of the world the audience sees. Audience members usually do not have access to objective information about events, and so the way in which information is processed, edited, and otherwise manipulated becomes vitally important. The news media create the symbolic environments in which everyone lives, and these environments are the result of a complex gatekeeping process. An excellent summary of this interaction between social psychology and communication studies is provided in Hornsey, et al. 2008. Gatekeeping’s outcome is the construction of multiple versions of reality. The reduction of the day’s events from a theoretically objective world reality to multiple media realities is one of the most important communication processes. Because most people’s personal experience with national and world events is minimal, their reactions to events often are based on their exposure to personally selected samples of the media’s news and entertainment content. These reactions shape people’s social reality, the world in which they think they live. Traditional “audience members” have become information hubs due to the additional burdens that writing for websites and social media have placed on journalist-gatekeepers, according to Ashuri 2012. Audience-gatekeepers have gained the ability to further shape and transform not only their own social realities, but that of others as well. The hub, with spokes as conduits to the outside world, may be a better model of the gatekeeping process than any seen thus far as it introduces a new level of power to the audience.

  • Ashuri, Tamar. 2012. Activist journalism: Using digital technologies and undermining structures. Communication, Culture & Critique 5.1: 38–56.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1753-9137.2011.01116.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article explores how audience gatekeeping through new and social media reduces the traditional power structure of the mass media. The author analyzes the online activities of Machsom Watch, a women’s organization that monitors human rights in Palestine and finds that the group’s online actions create new social structures. Because media institutions are effective constructors of social reality, the newfound ability of individuals to directly influence how media organizations construct this reality is an important area of future study.

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  • Hastorf, Albert H., and Hadley Cantril. 1954. They saw a game: A case study. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 49:129–134.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0057880Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A football game between Dartmouth and Princeton presented an opportunity for Hastorf and Cantril to conduct interviews with students at each university who watched it. Princeton and Dartmouth students reported that the other team made twice the infractions as their own players had. The scholars concluded that there was no “real” game but only the game that each person held in their heads. This served as the basis for assumptions that individuals create their own social realities.

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  • Hornsey, Matthew J., Cindy Gallois, and Julie M. Duck. 2008. The intersection of communication and social psychology: Points of contact and points of difference. Journal of Communication 58.4: 749–766.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2008.00412.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article compares and contrasts the fields of communication studies and social psychology. Hornsey and colleagues point out the collaborative nature of the two disciplines and connect the backgrounds of modern scholarly communication and today’s social psychology. The authors reveal how the concept of social reality has been influenced and shared by the world of communication studies and the world of social psychology.

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  • Lang, Kurt, and Gladys Engel Lang. 1953. The unique perspective of television and its effect: A pilot study. American Sociological Review 18.1: 3–12.

    DOI: 10.2307/2087842Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Kurt Lang and Gladys Lang designed a study around the 1951 “MacArthur Day” parade in Chicago in honor of General Douglas MacArthur. The scholars stationed some people along the parade route and assigned others to watch on television, asking both groups to report what they had observed. Those along the parade route rated the parade as less exciting than did the television viewers: the television camera showed only the most positive images. The reality of the parade differed based on perspective.

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  • Lippmann, Walter. 1922. Public opinion. New York: MacMillan.

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    In Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann presents the argument that mass media are the connectors between world events and the picture of those events in the minds of audiences. He thus laid the groundwork for research into theories such as agenda setting and gatekeeping and in explanations of how gatekeepers exert a powerful influence over the picture of the world the audience sees.

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  • Mead, George H. 1934. Mind, self, and society. Edited by Charles W. Morris. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Mead is one of the first scholars to discuss one’s self and identity as socially constructed concepts. Individuals create their own sense of self and sense of reality as a result of communication with others and the outside world. Mead denotes communication as a necessary part of social order. In his time, this referred to interpersonal interactions, but, in modern time, the mass media are a significant component.

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Agenda Setting, Framing, and Priming

Like many theories in the field of communication studies, gatekeeping is often grouped within a “family” of ideologies. Most often, gatekeeping is aligned with other theories of news, news makers, and the audience’s construction of social reality. Theories such as agenda setting, framing, and priming are most often cited alongside gatekeeping research. Over the years, scholars have searched for ways to identify the various functions and structural underpinnings of the mass media. In 1950, David Manning White (see White 1950, cited under A Gatekeeping Model for News) examined a newspaper editor’s work to discover why and how he chose the day’s news. Two decades later, McCombs and Shaw 1972 explored how editors, journalists, and broadcasters report political campaign news to audiences, thus setting the campaign agenda for the audience. Following suit, Iyengar and Kinder 1987 analyzes how television news set viewers up to evaluate the US president in certain ways—priming them to feel positively or negatively based on reportage. Shortly thereafter, Entman 1993 dove into the area of framing research, looking at the various backdrops reporters give news events, again putting forth a specific reality to audiences. In fact, Wallington, et al. 2010 examines agenda setting and framing through a hierarchical structure of gatekeeping practices and power dynamics. All of these conceptualizations of mass media news reporting circle around the idea that what happens in the newsroom affects what audiences see, read, or hear—and, therefore, feel—about a particular event. Each of these scholars worked to discover why news is reported in such ways and how the various gatekeepers in the news system make the decisions they do. Weaver 2007 explores the connections inherent in agenda setting, framing, and priming research. Because of results showing impacts on audience opinion, the studies in agenda setting, framing, and priming highlight why it is important to continue to monitor the decision-making and gatekeeping processes of the mass media.

  • Entman, Robert M. 1993. Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication 43.4: 51–58.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1993.tb01304.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article is one of the most highly recognized in framing research. Entman very effectively defines the concept of framing as involving selection and salience creation on the part of the mass media (and gatekeepers therein), and he also calls for a better way of organizing these frames.

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  • Iyengar, Shanto, and Donald R. Kinder. 1987. News that matters: Television and American opinion. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    This work by Iyengar and Kinder serves as a primary text for priming research. The authors present their studies on television news coverage of the US president and policy and point out that news media gatekeepers call attention to certain political matters while pushing aside others, therefore affecting how viewers judge the president and the political system.

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  • McCombs, Maxwell, and Donald Shaw. 1972. The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly 36.2: 176–187.

    DOI: 10.1086/267990Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    McCombs and Shaw’s groundbreaking study reveals that the ways in which journalists report on political campaigns—in this case, the 1968 presidential race—affects how voters perceive the campaign. In comparing voter opinion in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area with media coverage of the campaigns, the authors found that the issues defined as “major” in the mass media tended to be the issues deemed significant by voters, while “minor” issues in the news were deemed insignificant by voters.

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  • Wallington, Sherrie F., Kelly Blake, Kalahn Taylor-Clark, and Kasisomayajula Viswanath. 2010. Antecedents to agenda setting and framing in health news: An examination of priority, angle, source, and resource usage from a national survey of US health reporters and editors. Journal of Health Communication 15.1: 76–94.

    DOI: 10.1080/10810730903460559Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This article presents a survey of news organizations and journalists regarding how they report science and health news. Wallington and colleagues discuss the influences of individual reporters and their organizations on how stories are covered. Although not explicitly stated, the paper explores agenda setting and framing through a hierarchical model of gatekeeping, questioning the power dynamics of the newsroom.

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  • Weaver, David H. 2007. Thoughts on agenda setting, framing, and priming. Journal of Communication 57.1: 142–147.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2006.00333.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The author explores not only the interconnectedness of agenda setting, framing, and priming research, but also notes various distinctions between the three areas. In examining Weaver’s presentation of the three research paradigms, one can see where gatekeeping research may comfortably fit.

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Other Theories

Gatekeeping theory developed in the mid-20th century at a time after World War II when scholars had returned to universities and the social sciences flourished. Several theories developed concurrently that, in retrospect, are closely related.

Information Theory

Around the time that witnessed the emergence of gatekeeping, the author of Shannon 1948 introduced a new communication theory based on electrical engineering. The authors of Shannon and Weaver 1949 put forth their information theory, a mathematical model of the communication process. Information theory introduced the concepts of sender and receiver, which have since become metaphors for journalists communicating with the audience. They conceived of information as a pattern of electrical impulses that traveled along a channel from sender to receiver. Shannon and Weaver understood that the information sent was not always identical with that received, and their construct “noise” was introduced as any interference in the message that had the potential to change the information, for example, errors in transmission or signal distortion. This linear model of communication proved influential with respect to most of the studies that followed. When Lewin’s gatekeeping model (see Lewin 1947, cited under Core Texts) and Shannon and Weaver’s information model were combined, media sources encoded information and the audience decoded it—understanding its meaning according to their view of the world. Noise in the channel stemmed from mass media processes used while winnowing information and preparing it for transmission. Perhaps noise was inevitable when introducing a mediator between sender and receiver. Certainly the anecdotal passing of information from one person to another shows that the final message is garbled when compared with the original; the more mediators, the more noise, and, hence, the more inaccuracy. The theory emphasized three “problems” of communication: accurate transmission of information, precisely conveying its meaning, and whether intended effects on the receiver occur. Shortly after information theory was introduced, psychologist Theodore Newcomb, in Newcomb 1953, proposed a co-orientational theoretical model that illustrated how two people, A and B, communicate between themselves about an object, X. This interpersonal communication model was changed in Westley and MacLean 1957 to illustrate the role of the mass media between the senders and receivers (from information theory). Gatekeeping theory asserts that the world’s events are purposively chosen to become news, using criteria that range from personal opinions or broadly applied journalistic news values to the application of policies or beliefs held by media organizations, their owners, interest groups, the government, and society. By the beginning of the 21st century, the mass media environment had changed significantly. As a result, journalists have to provide stories for their media’s twenty-four-hour websites and to monitor blogs and other websites in the same way that they monitor television and newspapers. Their jobs are more complex, with many more sources of information and, therefore, many more gatekeeping decisions. Lowrey 2011 discusses these changes in the author’s study of information theory and uncertainty in modern-day newsrooms. Today, anyone can be a gatekeeper, and anyone can be a journalist and an audience member as well—all at the same time.

  • Lowrey, Wilson. 2011. Institutionalism, news organizations and innovation. Journalism Studies 12.1: 64–79.

    DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2010.511954Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    This study examines a particular element of information theory—the factor of uncertainty (also known as the Shannon entropy)—in the gatekeeping practices of news institutions when faced with the development of new technologies. Lowrey surveys news organizations to show that innovation is greatly needed in order to account for the new level of control audiences have, and that a degree of uncertainty helps to fuel such action.

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  • Newcomb, Theodore M. 1953. An approach to the study of communicative acts. Psychological Review 60.6: 393–404.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0063098Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Theodore Newcomb’s 1953 psychological co-orientation theory shows interactions between communicators (notated as A and B) toward each other and toward an object (notated as X). As a result of talking with one another, both persons form opinions about themselves and about the object they are discussing.

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  • Shannon, Claude E. 1948. A mathematical theory of communication. Bell System Technical Journal 27:379–423.

    DOI: 10.1002/j.1538-7305.1948.tb01338.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Claude Shannon, an electrical engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, proposed information theory in 1948. The theory explained how information units (or bits) move through electrical telephone systems. This would later be applied in a more theoretical framework to the field of communication studies when Shannon teamed up with Warren Weaver a year later to write their groundbreaking book on information theory (Shannon and Weaver 1949).

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  • Shannon, Claude E., and Warren Weaver. 1949. The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

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    Shannon and Weaver’s information theory predicted how quickly and with what quality information units could pass along a channel. Information was placed in the channel by a sender and then encoded, sent, decoded, and received. The authors explained the fact that information was not always received or that it was garbled to some extent by the concept of noise or interference in the encoding, decoding, and transmission processes. This introduced the idea that the message sent is not always the message received.

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  • Westley, Bruce H., and Malcolm S. MacLean Jr. 1957. A conceptual model for mass communications research. Journalism Quarterly 34:31–38.

    DOI: 10.1177/107769905703400103Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The model presented by Westley and MacLean in this article showed information about objects or events (X) traveling in channels between encoders or sources (A) and decoders or receivers (B). Person A communicates about event X to person B. The addition between A and B of construct C, the mass media, represents Lewin’s gatekeeping channel. Westley and MacLean added the idea that information takes a detour from the sender to the receiver, channeled through and transmitted by the mass media.

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Field Theory

Shoemaker 1991 (cited under Core Texts) found that one aspect of Kurt Lewin’s original gatekeeping theory had been lost along the way—field theory. Lewin 1951 asserts that people exist within the field, which is their own symbolic environment, and events there have forces attached to them that work to help or hinder the transmission of information through gates. Lewin conceived of these forces in terms of mathematical functions that could predict whether information would pass through a gate and be received on the other side. In Shoemaker 1991, the author used this idea, that gatekeeping could extend from the individual to the environment or social system, and developed a model to show how they can interact. Lewin had borrowed the term field from physics, as in a field of energy. He adapted this idea to the world of humans with the concept of “lifespace.” Lewin, who had mathematical training, challenged his students and colleagues to identify many variables that impact people. These variables made up the psychological, geographic, and sociological field in which people live or, as Einstein had put it, “a totality of existing facts.” Lewin decided that, to describe any individual’s lifespace, it was necessary to identify multiple variables that could represent the forces and tensions operating on the person. This was not a popular idea at the time, but he used the technique of topology—illustrating the forces in the lifespace. Only a few years later, other scholars’ work, such as Bourdieu 1972, adopted similar concepts of fields and lifespace in which to discuss the various structures of society. Today we think of lifespace as the totality of variables that we believe will influence the dependent variable—in other words, multivariate analysis. This is particularly pertinent to gatekeeping research, as evidenced in Rawolle and Lingard 2010, which studies these forces and variables in the context of modern news production.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1972. Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique: Précédé de trois études d’ethnologie kabyle. Geneva, Switzerland: Librairie Droz.

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    Pierre Bourdieu used the concept of fields to identify social structures that remained autonomous from the wider society but in which people exist and connect nonetheless. His fields of study included the arenas of education and politics. Like Lewin, Bourdieu felt that a field influenced individuals through various rules and schema.

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  • Lewin, Kurt. 1951. Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers. New York: Harper.

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    This is Lewin’s seminal work on field theory. Here he introduces the idea that individuals exist in a perceived reality that consists of interdependent variables. Depending on how a person perceives his or her environment and self, the person will behave differently. Behavior is determined by one’s situation in life, or “lifespace.” Gatekeeping exists in one lifespace or another, whether it be in a home setting (for food selection) or a media setting (for news selection).

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  • Rawolle, Shaun, and Bob Lingard. 2010. The mediatization of the knowledge based economy: An Australian field based account. Communications: The European Journal of Communication Research 35.3: 269–286.

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    Rawolle and Lingard apply field theory to a modern setting. The authors refer to Bourdieu’s use of social fields to conduct an analysis of the “mediatization” of knowledge in Australia. This paper identifies the new concept of cross-field effects that describes the interaction between the separate social fields of journalism and policy.

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Study Methods

Gatekeeping variables and operational measures are found across multiple levels of analysis and in a variety of contexts. As such, many research methodologies can and have been used and are dependent on the research purpose or investigative goals. The author of Gitlin 1980 used participant observation as a primary method of examining routine journalistic practices as did Tuchman 1978 (cited under Core Texts), Altheide 1976, and Sigal 1973, and others (cited under Media Sociology). Content analysis is the prominent research methodology, as researchers are often concerned with media content and those involved in the creation of media content. Content analysis is a quantitative form of objective, systematic analysis of characteristics found within message content. Fahmy, et al. 2007 and Hurley and Tewksbury 2012 present good examples of recent content analyses of newspaper and online news coverage of events (respectively), and the gatekeeping processes of conventional and new media. Content analysis can also be conducted using a comparative analysis approach, as done in Singer 2001, in an examination of online journalist gatekeeping. Collecting survey data is another popular method in gatekeeping research, as utilized recently in Cassidy 2006, a study in which the authors use a national survey to examine the roles of online and print journalists. Secondary data analysis is a less common, but still viable approach to gatekeeping research. In a major example of such research, Beam 2008 examines secondary data from previous journalist narratives to analyze gatekeeping at the individual level. Conventional (with one dependent variable) analytical strategies such as analysis of variance, analysis of covariance, and simple or multiple regression are appropriate. In addition, more powerful procedures are available involving multiple independent and dependent variables, such as structural equation modeling. One such approach, multilevel modeling, is uniquely appropriate for gatekeeping studies because it can take into consideration effects on the dependent variable from more than one level of analysis. On the qualitative side, textual analysis is also used to study media content. Unlike content analysis, which studies manifest content, textual analysis studies the latent meaning of content. Focus groups and in-depth interviews can also provide information about individuals’ assessments of the performance of gatekeepers. In a study of ten countries, Shoemaker and Cohen 2006, for instance, used focus groups to show that what people want is not what newspapers are giving them. In a more recent study, the authors of Lewis, et al. 2010 interview newspaper editors about the rise of the so-called citizen journalist, who greatly interrupts traditional gatekeeping models. Studies have employed quantitative and qualitative methods to assess gatekeeping in a particular setting, but some of the most successful have combined both forms of analysis. In a partially qualitative and partially quantitative turn, Hun Shik Kim uses Q methodology to examine how journalists select international news stories (Kim 2002). Gatekeeping researchers are best served by using a variety of methodologies to gain perspective into the processes that affect news content and audience reception.

  • Beam, Randal A. 2008. The social characteristics of US journalists and their “best work.” Journalism Practice 2.1: 1–14.

    DOI: 10.1080/17512780701768428Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The article presents a good example of secondary analysis in gatekeeping research. In his examination of short narratives given by reporters, Beam finds that individual-level gatekeeping may be far more significant in news production than commonly anticipated.

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  • Cassidy, William P. 2006. Gatekeeping similar for online, print journalists. Newspaper Research Journal 27.2: 6–23.

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    Cassidy uses a national survey instrument to learn how online and print journalists view their roles in reporting. The author finds that routine gatekeeping forces have more of an effect on the role played by conceptualizations for online and print journalists than do individual influences.

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  • Fahmy, Shahira, James D. Kelly, and Yung Soo Kim. 2007. What Katrina revealed: A visual analysis of the hurricane coverage by news wires and US newspapers. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 84.3: 546–561.

    DOI: 10.1177/107769900708400309Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors of this piece conduct a visual content analysis of images in US newspapers taken of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. In analyzing photographs released by Reuters and the Associated Press, Fahmy and colleagues find that gatekeeping processes are crucial in visual framing.

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  • Gitlin, Todd. 1980. The whole world is watching. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Gitlin was a participant observer of Students for a Democratic Society, a 1960s left-wing university-based organization. The media were not initially interested in the group, but, as it initiated increasingly violent protests against the Vietnam War, these events pushed it past news gates and therefore became a regular part of the news. Gitlin believed that the media’s routine coverage of deviant events caused the group to become more deviant—deviant events draw more violent people to the group.

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  • Hurley, Ryan J., and David Tewksbury. 2012. News aggregation and content differences in online cancer news. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56.1: 132–149.

    DOI: 10.1080/08838151.2011.648681Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Hurley and Tewksbury present a comparative content analysis of health news from news aggregation websites such as Google News and individual corporate news websites such as CNN.com. The authors discuss why the traditional model of gatekeeping needs to be reconceptualized in this Internet age.

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  • Kim, Hun Shik. 2002. Gatekeeping international news: An attitudinal profile of US television journalists. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 46.3: 431–452.

    DOI: 10.1207/s15506878jobem4603_7Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    In one of the few examples of Q methodology in the realm of gatekeeping, Kim Hun Shik explores the selection criteria for thirty-one national and local television journalists in deciding how to cover international news. Through a Q factor analysis, the author reveals that network and local news reporters cover issues differently depending on a more global view (network) or audience demands (local).

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  • Lewis, Seth C., Kelly Kaufhold, and Dominic L. Lasorsa. 2010. Thinking about citizen journalism. Journalism Practice 4.2: 163–179.

    DOI: 10.1080/14616700903156919Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors of this study attempt to understand how local newspaper editors are grappling with the recent phenomenon of citizen journalism, something that is often interpreted as undermining editorial gatekeeping practices. In a qualitative approach, Lewis and his team conducted interviews with twenty-nine news editors. They have philosophical and practical concerns with the rise of citizen journalists.

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  • Shoemaker, Pamela J., and Akiba A. Cohen. 2006. News around the world: Content, practitioners, and the public. New York: Routledge.

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    Shoemaker and Cohen analyzed the content of newspapers, television, and radio news programs in twenty cities worldwide. Focus group data were used to validate the basic theoretical underpinnings of the study. The scholars used focus group participants to assess the extent to which their local newspapers were giving people the type of information they preferred. Participants were asked to rank news stories in order from high to low newsworthiness as if they were the editors of the newspapers.

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  • Singer, Jane B. 2001. The metro wide web: Changes in newspaper’s gatekeeping role online. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 78.1: 65–80.

    DOI: 10.1177/107769900107800105Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Jane Singer presents an intriguing look at how the Internet is changing the role of gatekeepers in online journalism. She examines local print and online newspapers in Colorado, comparing the gatekeeping practices of each. Results show that online papers have more coverage of local issues than print, revealing that online editors are effectively reinterpreting their “community connected” role in light of new technologies.

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LAST MODIFIED: 10/29/2013

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756841-0011

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