Gatekeeping Theory – Book Review, by Lilly Hunter

If you enjoy watching Andrew Marr and his guests going through the newspapers on television every Sunday morning, discussing which stories each paper has chosen for the front page, you will find Gatekeeping Theory an interesting read. It delves deeply into the processes involved in how those choices are made.

Be warned, though. This is an academic textbook; it does not resemble, in any way, the type of topical, non-fiction you find at airport bookshops. It starts by defining at length what Gatekeeping Theory is, dealing with the processes by which information – news – makes it through ‘a gate’ consisting of the “cognitive and organisational processes” used by media workers, who decide what will get disseminated and what will not.

It is a bit comical that this theory was originally created to discover, and study, the processes involved in determining which types of food ended up on people’s tables in the late 1940s.

The book continues with a good review of the literature since the ‘40s, showing how social scientists have continued to expand the model and refine it.

An interesting study from 1974 suggests that journalists, rather like doctors doing triage after a large accident, group events into categories as a way of coping with the vast amount of information coming at them. Gatekeeping decisions made during breaking news events may differ from those made on slower news days, with gatekeepers forced to use ‘second guessing’ when the news coming in seems incomplete or possibly inaccurate. They add alternative interpretations of their own to the report as a hedge.

Journalists were found to have a strong tendency toward ‘pack journalism’ because of feeling a need to validate their choices by observing what other gatekeepers do and thus confirm their ‘news sense.’ This leads to a greater degree of uniformity in what information reaches the public than what one would expect.

It is interesting to see cost/benefit analysis applied, for example in what the authors refer to as ‘cost becomes value’. For instance, if an event is unfolding in a part of the world where the gatekeeper has no reporters and must therefore pay to send a reporter or team of reporters there, the likelihood is that that the story will subsequently receive extensive coverage, due to the ‘investment’ that has been made, without regard to other considerations of newsworthiness.

Looking to the future, the authors ask whether Gatekeeping Theory will be applicable to online media and participatory media such as blogs and YouTube.

Twitter isn’t mentioned in the book, though I think that anyone who ‘tweets’ will instantly realise that they instinctively follow the same principles in deciding what to write, or what to re-tweet, as professional gatekeepers use. Routine news values such as “timeliness, proximity, interest or oddity” are applied, as well as “shaping, display, timing, withholding or repetition of messages”.

The authors issue a challenge to the social science community to “think creatively about applying the theory to a changing world and to adapt research methodology that keeps pace…New software is necessary to capture information about ephemeral, always changing internet sites, and we also need advances in ways to analyse the content”.

One person who appears to have taken up the challenge is Dan Zarella, a self-styled social media and viral marketing scientist who creates applications with which to study Twitter and other online participatory media: “ReTweets are the first entirely observable and analysable viral content spreading mechanism in the history of mankind and, as such, they offer an unparalleled window into what makes humans spread ideas.”

The reference list at the end of the book is extensive and gives good leads for further reading in this fascinating subject.

Lilly Hunter is an e-marketer at The University of Edinburgh.

Gatekeeping Theory, by Pamela J Shoemaker and Tim P Vos, is published by Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group. ISBN: 978 0 415 98139 2. Price: £18.99.