The sociological study of mass media is important because major themes like power and control can be illustrated using appropriate media analyses, especially processes regarding the gathering and dissemination of news. Power and control can be discussed within mass media through a specific analysis of “gate-keeping.” A critique of the act of “gate-keeping” can show how it is a function of controlling information. Additionally, a critique of the role of gatekeeper serves as an explanation of who holds the power in certain mass communication.
“Gate-keeping” is a relatively simple concept to define. It can be described as a process “by which countless messages are reduced to the few we are offered in our daily newspapers and television news programs” (Salwen & Stacks, 1996). Or, it can be called an “act of deciding what will appear in the media” (Straubhaar, LaRose, & Davenport, 2008). Through combining critical analysis of gate-keeping power and control, this article will explain how new media gatekeepers have transcended traditional mass media roles.
DEFINITION OF THE PROBLEM
Within the public sphere, information can either remain stagnant or it can flow. During the phase in which Habermas described the public sphere as a platform for advertising, he professed that the publisher developed an interest solely in establishing an enterprise purely as a business. This caused the publisher to focus on stimulating an active organization of the flow of news and the collating of the news itself (Habermas, 1991). As information began to flow, those publishers then began to determine from where news came and to whom it went.
The function of the press had thus begun a change in the definition of its processes. Lazarsfeld welcomed the critical theorists’ concern over media ownership and control, the role of the gatekeeper, and the problem of quality and value (Katz, 1987). If the press was shifting to commercialism, then it was important to determine who was shaping that change.
The role of gatekeeper is a powerful one because the gatekeeper determines what “gets through the gate” and therefore is the sole determiner of the quality of material and subsequently the value placed on each bit of information. However, it can be shown that the power of the gatekeeper can be segmented. The role of the “originator” of an idea can be distinguished from that of the “transmitter” and both of those roles can be separated from the role of “influential” (Katz, Lazarsfeld, & Roper, 2006). Those distinctions are important because a gatekeeper who plays all three parts will likely hold more control than the gatekeeper who solely transmits information.
There is very little debate that the amount of news created daily is almost infinite. The role of news “originator” holds less power than the “transmitter” because the transmitter funnels news, determining what information actually reaches the reader. Billions of people on earth create news of varying importance each day but there is no way to consume it all.
The gathering and dissemination of news are distinctly different processes. Gate-keeping plays an essential part in news gathering and dissemination processes because every potential news item cannot be gathered and, from among those items gathered, they all cannot be disseminated (Salwen & Stacks, 1996). Because of this distinction, the news gatherer and news transmitter possess disparate quantities of power.
I would posit that the man gathering news a century ago was to some level also a transmitter. Therefore, he was a gatekeeper by another definition than the gatekeeper of today. The current gatekeeper is more involved in channeling communication. Gatekeepers determine which items get into the channel and which pass from section to section. Gatekeepers may exercise their own preferences (Salwen & Stacks, 1996). A news originator simply submits an item into the stream of news flow but it is the gatekeeper who then channels, or “feeds,” the transmission of the news.
Currently, because of the worldwide reach of the web, there are many more streams of news than there were a century ago. These countless streams influence educated decision-making processes in regard to the conglomeration of new sources one reads. Just as the quantity of news is reaching an immeasurable level, the aggregate of news streams is also increasing rapidly. The news consumer has the option of choosing a set of similar or dissimilar feeds. More educated people are better able to call upon alternative sources of information to question new information and counter the message. The media are not the only protector of the public from propaganda (Johansen & Joslyn, 2008). Well educated or not, the reader now has more of a duty to determine his own streams.
The role of determining news feeds is relatively new to the consumer as that has traditionally been the charge of the media. Allegorically, the reader still patronizes the same restaurant but now there are not only more menu items but there are several menus to choose from. In the past, the chef (news editor) set the menu. Now, the reader does. However, the reader may still be fed suggestions from news editors, as has been the case historically. News editors tell the reader what various experts think he ought to know (Straubhaar et al., 2008). The editor’s gate-keeping function disappears if the reader has control over choosing what news feed he receives.
HELP IS ON THE WAY
The role of determining news feeds is imposing to the reader when there is no controlling mechanism in the form of rules, constraints, or lessons given regarding how to choose what is important to read. The editor formerly performed that role as an educated actor. As a gatekeeper, the editor also operated within a structural context. “Structure presents a variety of constraints, such as community pluralism, type of newspaper, and form of ownership, which may affect the outcome of the gate-keeping process” (Donohue et al., 1989). The reader is thrust into being forced to make new decisions because of the nature of the worldwide web having very little structure and few constraints or rules.
The consuming reader, with little external support or outside influence, has the intimidating task of making decisions of what news he encounters before he consumes it. He holds power that is unrealized. Without a funnel, or gatekeeper, he might become frustrated reading what he already knows. On the wide-open web, in addition to newspapers and magazines, there are alternative sources that make intelligent suggestions about new things that he may be interested in beyond what he already knows. But, this absence of influence only applies to, e.g., the blinking cursor inside the Google search engine box. There is external support and outside influence to make news consumption a less intimidating task if the reader knows where to look.
The consuming reader has the ability to accept external influence if he so chooses. He can easily avoid “the claustrophobic narrowness of interests implied by Negroponte’s idea of ‘daily me,’ that is, a newspaper customized exactly to our own specific interests” (Straubhaar et al., 2008). Conversely, he could choose to subscribe to the “daily me.” It is the power of choice that the consuming reader holds.
The dilemma here stems from the quantity of news because, again, billions of people on earth originate daily news of varying levels of importance with no way to consume it all. There must then be a filter, whether it is the consumer himself or a news editor. There is continuing debate as to whose role that should be and who holds that power.
The typical consumer, in completely generic terms, wants what he wants and desires much of it. “Some news readers are responding positively to the way the Internet permits them to radically expand the information available to them, as well as focus and personalize their news” (Straubhaar et al., 2008). This only creates more problems for the consumer. If he is seeking to obtain the most information then he will collect that which is gathered most conveniently.
In fact, the consumer that Straubhaar describes will only narrow his perspective because he will obtain mass quantities of what he already knows. Therefore, this consumer becomes less and less rational. Habermas expressed that “rationality has less to do with the possession of knowledge than with how speaking and acting subjects acquire and use knowledge” (Habermas & McCarthy, 1985). Rationality is not “how much you know,” it is a question of “where did you get the information and how will you use it?”
Possessing a variety of knowledge is more appealing to Habermas. Practical discourse, he says, is meant to show that a norm recommended for acceptance expresses a “generalizable” interest (Habermas & McCarthy, 1985). Practical discourse cannot be held when the recipient and he who recommends are already in congruent thought. Such a discourse would not be practical, would not possess inter-subjectivity, and would be solipsist.
However, it would be convenient to the consumer. Michael Schudson explains how this might be a good thing, stating that “politics cannot always be convenient; but, there are many cases where making it more convenient and more accessible will make it more popular” (Schudson, 2007). Making political news more popular is likely going to make it more consumed therefore leading to a more enlightened citizen.
But, in the modern age of personalized news feeds, this citizen would only be more enlightened to what he already knows henceforth reinforcing his own sets of values. There is a void of discourse about generalizable interests when a consumer is just cementing preformed ideals. To prevent this knowledge gap, the general public needs help in deciding what news to consume.
Now more than ever, the consumer needs a watchdog. Historically, copy editors have considered their jobs to have an ethics-watchdog component (Keith, 2005). For purposes of this article, The “watchdog concept” cited is that described by Timothy Gleason which shows how the American press developed a key element of its self-understanding “because common law required the press to follow ‘good motives’ and to seek ‘justifiable ends;’ The press created the watchdog concept, arguing for special protection on the grounds that the institutional press had a democratic duty to observe, investigate, and report matters of public interest” (Ferre, 1991). It has long been held that it is the inherent duty of the press to hold decisive control of what news is best for the consumer to read.
Consumers continue to demand that the press, particularly editors, help them decide what news to read. “Some news readers continue to prefer the classic editing and gate-keeping functions that a good newspaper provides. As the ‘New Yorker’ magazine noted, ‘Newspapers are not just yesterday’s news; the good ones are carefully prepared buffets, cooked up by skilled editors who sift the news and present it in a way that makes each edition unique. Computers, for all their strengths, are very poor at replicating human judgment and intuition, and those qualities are what editing newspapers is all about’” (Straubhaar et al., 2008). However, new technology can assist the consumer by suggesting what news to read.
THE ROBOTIC EDITOR
New technology can assist the consumer by suggesting what news to read, but that technology is useless if it only suggests what the user wants to receive. In other words, the automated suggestions lose their subjectivity and suggestive essence. The automated profiling and selection criteria can either consist of true suggestions or can be a preplanned channel; the consumer has the control to determine this. “Google has developed a popular news search program, but promising as it seems, this sort of automated profiling and selection from Internet information still does not duplicate the editing function of a good newspaper” (Straubhaar et al., 2008). Straubhaar is correct only in cases when Google automatically suggests what the user already wants to receive.
To be a valid replacement, Google needs to exhibit all the qualities of a good news editor. Four dimensions or roles of traditional journalism, as perceived by the public, were exemplified in a 2005 survey: good neighbor, watchdog, unbiased and accurate, and fast (Heider, McCombs, & Poindexter, 2005). Because it uses a mathematical algorithm, if created properly, Google can be unbiased. High-speed connections and fiber optics have made transmission fast. Google does possess many of the qualities of a good news editor.
THE HUMAN EDITOR
Google is not able to meet all the criteria of a good news editor. The automated profiling and selection criteria do not type up stories. Google does not chase leads nor does it verify its sources. It only aggregates news and sources. The news editor must still gather the news. Google, or any news feed for that matter, only has the power to disseminate information.
Online news feeds are a beneficial source of information retrieval. “Online news has the potential not only to bring citizens a more comprehensive version of the day’s news, but also to empower them to take an active part in the day’s journalism” (Robinson, 2006). Combining the beneficial qualities of online news (speed and lack of bias) with the perks of human editors (source checking and gathering) produces an effective partnership.
This partnership can even exist at a local level. Bruns cites community newspapers that “chronicle local news, provide information about local matters, promote community events, and a forum for local discussion, and also act as a watchdog for the more mainstream media – focusing especially on locally important topics which are not or only poorly covered in regional, state, and national media outlets” (Bruns, 2008). Whenever these community newspapers are suggested through a news feed online, the reader benefits.
A NEW PARTNERSHIP IS FORMED
Generally, a reader will benefit from educated suggestions. Previous research has focused on mass communication and given attention to the “gatekeeper” role of the newspaperman (Carter, 1958). Other research has sought to determine what factors are related to the decisions by newspaper gatekeepers to run certain pieces of information and not others, or to feature certain items and “bury” others (Donohew, 1967). Future research must analyze the role of gatekeeper from a new perspective: an electronic news editor.
The human news editor is losing bits and pieces of power that he once held because certain portions of his controlling role have been usurped by technology. Formerly, editors were often seen as having a “buck stopping” role in the gate-keeping process. In the midst of a flow of information from a variety of sources and directions in multiple forms, the editor made the final decision about where, when, and how messages will be published (Donohue, Olien, & Tichenor, 1989). Now, predominantly because of the way blogs are set up, news is published instantly and in many different places which has caused the human news editor to heed portions of his control to others.
A FUTURE BLENDED ETHIC
The main elements of power that the news editor still maintains are legitimacy and validity. Blogs, in their current state, are somewhat haphazard and loosely controlled. “There’s ways to go about implementing a code of ethics for bloggers, and there’s ways not to do it. The Federal Trade Commission in the US is trying a punitive approach aimed at curbing instances of blogger payola, with fines for misleading blog posts. The problem I see with this is that it’s simply going to be unenforceable; the blogosphere isn’t as clearly structured as the mainstream media industry, where regulations to prevent misleading conduct may work. And, [because regulation is not taken seriously], there’s little chance that blogger regulation is going to be effective in any measurable way” (Bruns, 2009). Since the government has yet to step in to control blogs, news editors are the only ones left with a code of ethics when it comes to reporting legitimate and valid news.
New editors and journalists must maintain this code of ethics in order to keep any amount of power in news distribution. Some propose a journalism ethics obligation to identify speculation clearly, attribute it to sources, report any basis for it, and offer appropriate qualification (Cenite, 2005). Again, although online news feeds can aggregate sources, they do not have the power of source verification.
Power and control of gathering and disseminating news are premier topics to discuss sociologically because of the changing climate of current mass media and technology. The power to influence, once held strictly by the news editor, is shifting to online search engines that filter content to the consumer. Newsreaders like Google are now available as robotic gatekeepers. “By definition, gatekeepers must make choices about the issues and events covered. Not all of the infinite number of things that happen every day can be reported, nor all points of view: there simply isn’t the space of the resources” (Straubhaar et al., 2008). Control over how and where news is disseminated is increasingly shifting to automatic news feeds.
However, the power held by news originators is still held predominantly by valid and legit news sources. The gatekeeper introduces an idea to a group, but he may or may not serve also as a transmitter within the group and may or may not be influential at all (Katz, Lazarsfeld, & Roper, 2006). The gatekeeper has control over what appears in the media, but the gatekeeper needs fodder to disseminate. Without legitimate content, the gatekeeper is powerless.
Through newsreaders and feeds, status updates and tweets, the American consumer now can access more content than ever before. With this immense quantity of news on hand, more visible importance is placed on mechanisms like Google that reduce countless messages to a few. Thus, new electronic tools can be the gatekeepers of the future. However, the power of the news originator still remains. It can be shown through critical analysis of gate-keeping power and control how new media gatekeepers have transcended some traditional mass media roles, but not all.
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