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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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

  • 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: 10.1177/107769900107800402E-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.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

LAST MODIFIED: 10/29/2013

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756841-0011

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