What is Gatekeeping in the Mass Media?

 

News stories don’t just get published, They pass through what could be described as news gates before getting published or aired. These gates are occupied by people called gatekeepers who ensure that what is getting published is newsworthy and meets organizational standards.

Gatekeeping is a concept used to explain how news items travelling through a news channel get clearance at certain ‘checkpoints’ before getting to the news consumer. Gatekeepers are individuals or groups of persons that determine and monitor the movement of information within a communication channel from the sender to the receiver.

Underpinning the Gatekeeping theory is the concept that the journalist is first and foremost a gatekeeper who functions in that capacity at different periods in the news process. Coined by Kurt Lewin an Austrian Psychologist, the concept of gatekeeping refers to the media role of news selection and dissemination based on certain factors and individuals who control the “gates” through which news passes while moving from the source to the final consumers (Bittner, 1989). However, gatekeeping by the media does not stop at opening and closing the ‘news gate’ or accepting or rejecting news for publication; it further includes shaping, framing, display, timing and repetition of news.

The mass media have more gatekeepers than other channels of communication. From the journalist in the field, through the editors in the office, to the management staff and media owner, the information most often passes through many gatekeepers before getting to the public. The gatekeeper has been described as “any person or formally organized group directly involved in relaying or transferring information from one individual to another through a mass medium” (Bitner 1989, p. 12). According to Hiebert et al (1974, p. 107) the gatekeepers “can simply stop a message by refusing to ‘open the gate’.” Hiebert et al further identify three basic functions of the gatekeeper in the mass communication process as follows: (i) power to delete a message; (ii) increase the amount and importance of a certain kind of information; (iii) decrease the amount and importance of a specific kind of information.

Who are Gatekeepers in the Mass Media?

Gatekeepers are the personnel in media organizations who generate news and other media contents, select, edit, facilitate and monitor the movement of these contents through the channel. Gatekeepers are people who play significant roles in what could be referred to as the news-refinement process. They perform the gatekeeping function at various stages in the news-processing channel. This is the function of determining which stories meet the required standard in order to get published. Journalists act as gatekeepers or appear at every gate or ‘news checkpoint’ in the news-processing or news-refinement channel.

Gatekeepers could be referred to as key players involved in the process of seeing that a story meets the required standard for getting published or aired in a medium. They play one effective role or the other in this process directly or indirectly. They wield different powers at their levels but they all contribute in one way or the other towards the goal of determining the content of the organization’s publication. The number of gatekeepers that could exist in a media organization depends on its size. A small metropolitan newspaper, for instance, will have fewer gatekeepers than a large national or international newspaper. However, there are basic gatekeepers found in most media organizations irrespective of size. They could be magazine/newspaper publishers, newspaper editors, radio station managers, and television news directors, among others. A typical newspaper organization would be used as a model in explaining the workings of gatekeepers.

The basic gatekeepers in a typical newspaper organization include field reporter, city editor, bureau chief, sub-editor, news editor, editor and publisher. Others that play specific gatekeeping functions at their levels are line editors such political editor, sports editor, business editor, women editor, Saturday editor, Sunday editor, among others.

Field Reporter

This is the journalist that goes out for the daily news-gathering exercise in the field. He is the first gatekeeper of an organization. This is because most often he is the first to meet the news sources or the first to be at the news scene. So he is the first to determine what is selected as news story from the vast number of stories in the field. What other gatekeepers work on are the stories he brought in or the facts he gathered as the first gatekeeper. Although the editor and other senior journalists in the editorial cadre can also attend assignments in the field, the field reporter provides a great percentage of news content of a newspaper, especially the straight news reports. He is the journalist sent out on official assignment by the editor or other superiors in the office. The assignment could be press conferences, interviews, investigation of stories etc.

The field reporter is not necessarily the lowest cadre journalist in an organization. This is because even senior journalists could work as beat reporters or correspondents solely covering an area for their organization. Even a line editor could become a field reporter for a while, once he moves into the field for a particular story. But the field reporter referred to here is the journalist constantly in the field scouting for news. He is not always sitting down in the office giving orders and waiting for in-coming stories to edit. He is often in the field nosing for news and is the first to determine what gets to the office as news. He is always the first to come in contact with a news source or news event.

The field reporter is not just the journalist that stays in the office (especially head office) ready to be sent on assignment. He could be a beat reporter covering events in a particular area (state, ministry, sector etc). He could be in the sports beat, crime beat, energy beat or in a particular state as a correspondent. He decides what leaves his beat for the office as news. This may be different for state correspondents who send stories first to the bureau chief who makes the final decision on what leaves the bureau as news.

City editor

This is the head of the editorial department in a city. In some out-stations, there could be two or more journalists covering different bits for an organization. One could be permanently covering the state Government House or the State House of Assembly while the other works as a roving reporter. One of them could be City Editor who reports to the head office concerning editorial issues in the state. He is different from the Bureau Chief who often oversees more man one city. City editors report to Bureau chiefs where an organization chooses to adopt this structure.

Bureau chief

He is what could be referred to as the zonal head of an editorial department of a media organization. The zoning formula here may not be exactly the same as applies in the political terrain. This is to say that the number of states under one Bureau in the editorial parlance may not be exactly the same number of states in a political zone as officially used in Nigeria. For instance, in the media sector, Ibadan bureau may not have Lagos state under it if the head office of the organization in question is situated in Lagos state. In that instance, the entire Southwest zone as contained in the Nigerian constitution is not under one bureau. The entire Southeast states may however be under one bureau (Southeast Bureau) depending on where the head office of the organization is located.

Bureau Chiefs are final gatekeepers in their bureau. All the journalists in that bureau report to their bureau chief. These bureau chiefs check and approve news stories before they are sent to the head office. The Southeast bureau may have Ebonyi, Anambra, Imo, Abia and Enugu states under it with the bureau chief’s office located in Enugu city. The Abuja bureau of a large national daily usually has over 10 journalists operating in the Federal Capital Territory alone. This makes the bureau chief a strong gatekeeper.

Sub-editor

This is the man that goes through the reports sent in by journalists in order to ensure that they meet publishable standards (grammatically, ethically, or legally). He ensures that stories adapt to the house style of the newspaper. He uses analytical and logical mind to read a story and possibly rewrite it with only the basic points being highlighted so as to fit into available space or time, as the case may be. Ahuja and Chhabra (1998, p.33, cited in Nwabueze, 2021) describe the sub-editor as a presenter of news and reports who has a lawyer’s analytical approach and quick-mindedness which enables him to understand a story quickly and come to the core of the matter. He plays a supervisory and creative role of coordinating reports of other reporters, re-reading and rewriting the stories to suit house style, purging such stories of typographical errors and casting headlines that best attract audience to the story.

The sub-editor is involved to an extent in ‘killing’ stories or determining which story would be used. He plays a major gatekeeping function in giving a newspaper a qualitative outlook by refining or polishing stories before they get published. Much as he may not always be the last man at the final checkpoint of a story, he is close to those who can give a final go-ahead for a story to get published. He could be described as somebody in the “corridors of power”. His influence as a gatekeeper in the head office cannot be neglected.

Line editors

These are the heads of specific or specialized editorial desks or sub-departments. The sub-departments or desks could be political, business, sports, women, Saturday or Sunday edition desks. They are called line editors. The political editor, sports editor, business editor, Saturday editor, Sunday editor, women editor etc. fall into this group.

A typical newspaper for instance, is divided into different sections. Each section has a number of pages allocated to it. The business section has its own pages. There are also pages solely dedicated to stories about activities of women (women page or pages), sports stories, foreign stories etc. Those who have the final say about stories that go into these pages are line editors in charge of these pages or subsections. They are the last gatekeepers of these sub-departments or sections of the editorial department. They are answerable to the editor of the newspaper.

News Editor

The news editor closely monitors the daily in-flow of news items into an organization for the purpose of publication. He is a strong pillar in the editorial department of a media organization and a very strategic gatekeeper. He handles the coordination of the routine in­flow of reports and the news desk activities that see to an imaginative and creative publication of quality news stories. He selects stories that are of news value to target audience and drops those that are of less news value amidst competing stories. He is always alert to detect breaking news from any part of the country and gives directives to the nearest reporter to pursue the story while still monitoring the follow-up trend. The exclusives, the routine stories, fillers, special reports etc. are basically monitored and or determined by him.

The news editor plays vital and strategic gatekeeping function in a media organization. Reports or news items okayed by him are as good as published. He is more or less the right-hand man of the editor who depends on him in times of great stress and uneasy calm associated with beating deadline or meeting production time. The news editor could even go through the pains of rewriting or re-angling stories to meet publishable standard and appeal to audience of the newspaper.  He could also direct a subordinate journalist to rewrite the story.  Sometimes the field reporter could do a story which the news editor feels is not strong enough to require express publication. The news editor can drop such story for another story of equal news value. This shows the power of a news editor as a crucial gatekeeper.

Editor                                                                    

Some organizations have both editor and editor-in-chief. For the purpose of this discourse, editor is used to refer to the highest man in the editorial department. The editor is the head of editorial department. He has the final say over the editorial content of a newspaper organization. Sometimes he seeks the opinions of other members of the editorial board but in most cases, he is the last man at the last “news checkpoint” in the gatekeeping process.

The power of the editor as the final gatekeeper and a major pillar in shaping editorial image of a newspaper cannot be downplayed in anyway. He is more or less a master of all trades who keeps in touch with public opinion, local, national and international trend of events, and equally inspires the editorial staff to be committed to working for the organization. He operates a round-the-clock routine in an effort to closely supervise every aspect of editorial work in his organization.

The editor is the final gatekeeper who looks at the pool of reports already okayed by other subordinate editors and determines whether all should be published as they are or whether some should be dropped in the general interest of the newspaper. At that level, as has already been pointed out, the editor does not just wield such power in isolation but convinces other members of the editorial team, especially subordinate editors that his decision is proper and should be accepted in good faith.

Publisher

This is the owner of the media organization who pays the staff. As the publisher his interest is always protected in the publication. This capacity makes him a gatekeeper of some sort, though his own gatekeeping function may not be as powerful as that of other gatekeepers in the organization, particularly the editors. This is because the publisher is relatively distanced from the organization and from the routine process involved in the publication of news items. What often happens is that his interest is noted and protected by those directly involved with the daily production of the publication.

(Source: Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Ecology in the Digital Age – second edition, 2021; written by Nwabueze, C.)

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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