Gatekeeping Theory: Definition, Examples, Criticisms

gatekeeping theory definition

In communication theory, gatekeeping is the process through which information is filtered before it is disseminated.

Gatekeeping is associated with exercising different types of power, such as selecting news, enforcing the status quo, mediating between different groups, brokering expert information, and so on (Barzilai-Nahon, 2009).

Gatekeeping theory was first introduced by the social psychologist Kurt Lewin in 1943.

Definition of Gatekeeping Theory

Gatekeeping is the process of controlling information as it moves through a filter (gate). It is the process through which information is filtered by the gatekeepers.

Gatekeeping functions by:

“culling and crafting countless bits of information into the limited number of messages that reach people every day, and it is the center of the media’s role in modern public life” (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009).

Gatekeeping determines which information is selected as well as the content and nature of how that information will be conveyed to the public.

Any news medium (e.g. newspapers, radio, television, website, podcast, book) can present only a limited number of stories due to the limitations imposed by time and space (Beard & Olsen, 1999).

Any news channel, therefore, can provide only a selective picture of what is happening (Carter, 1998). This is the issue gatekeeping theory tries to address: How do those who filter and select information decide what to keep, change, or ignore? Often, this leads to accusations of media bias.

Five Principles

The traditional view of gatekeeping can be explained as follows (DeFleur & DeFleur, 2016, p. 198):

  1. Every news medium has an abundance of news stories brought to its attention.
  2. Only a limited number of these can be presented to the public.
  3. Within any news organization, there is a news perspective that defines the criteria by which a particular news story is judged.
  4. These criteria are used by the editors, news directors, etc., to select and filter the news stories.
  5. Those who use these criteria become the gatekeepers who let some stories pass through the gates and keep other stories out. They thereby limit, control, and shape what the public knows about.

Central Questions in Gatekeeping Theory

Melvin and Margaret DeFleur (2016) list the following three questions as the central concerns of gatekeeping theory:

  1. What is the process used by news media for observing the many potential stories from which their daily offerings will be selected?
  2. What are the criteria used to screen potential stories from those available to decide which ones to offer or reject?
  3. What are the consequences of using those criteria for the audience?

Gatekeeping is, however, not limited to the theme of news stories. As Kurt Lewin’s original example shows, gatekeeping theory can be applied to a variety of fields.

There are many mechanisms for selecting and screening information before it gets to the general public.

To remain competitive, stories that are of interest and importance must be selected by the gatekeepers. The process itself is known as gatekeeping.

Network Gatekeeping Theory

More recently, scholar Karine Barzilai-Nahon has developed a new approach: network gatekeeping theory.

She proposes a new theory that is better suited to the contemporary context. In this theory, the impact of the audience (the gated) is also considered. The gated are seen as actors who participate in the gatekeeping process.

Network gatekeeping theory thus raises a new set of questions about the role of the audience, the new roles of the gatekeepers, the new mechanisms of gatekeeping, the impact of communities, the role of social networks, and so on.

Examples of Gatekeeping Theory

The most famous example of how gatekeeping functions comes from David Manning White’s study of a newspaper editor playing the gatekeeper’s role.

He made an analysis of what stories that editor allowed through the gate, which ones he ignored, and what criteria he used for his decisions:

“Our ‘gate keeper’ is a man in his middle 40s, who after approximately 25 years of experience as a journalist (both as a reporter and a copy-editor) is now the wire editor of a morning newspaper of approximately 30,000 circulation in a highly industrialized mid-west city of 100,000. It is his job to select from the avalanche of wire copy daily provided by the Associated Press, United Press and International News Service what 30,000 families will read on the front page of their morning newspapers. He also copy-edits and writes headlines for those stories” (White, 1950).

The editor, as White found, rejected approximately 90% of the content. White concluded that the criteria used by the editor were generally highly subjective. For example, the editor did not like sensationalism, propaganda, vaguely written stories, repetitious stories, or “uninteresting” stories.

A study of one gatekeeper cannot suffice for a full understanding, but this was the starting point for a large amount of research to come.

The criteria for making such judgments about newsworthiness are known as “news values” and there are several commonly recognized such values (DeFleur & DeFleur, 2016, pp. 196-197):

  1. Bizarre: Stories about strange topics are considered especially newsworthy. For example, news stories about UFOs, unexplained events, ghost sightings, the Bermuda Triangle, and so on generate lots of views.
  2. Conflict: Stories about conflicts are considered especially newsworthy. Conflicts between groups can generate popular and relevant news stories.
  3. Currency: Stories that concern issues that are in the spotlight of the public are more newsworthy.
  4. Impact: The number of people whose lives will be influenced by the events of the story. The more people a news story concerns, the more newsworthy it is. For example, electricity going out in one neighborhood is less newsworthy than a power-out in an entire region.
  5. Prominence: Stories about individuals who are familiar to the public are more newsworthy than stories about random people.
  6. Proximity: Generally speaking, events that occur locally are more newsworthy than events that happen far away. For example, a riot in the US is more newsworthy for US-based news outlets than a riot in France.
  7. Timeliness: Fresh stories are more newsworthy than stories that concern events that happened a long time ago. Rapid reports about currently ongoing events are considered especially newsworthy (“breaking news”).

Criticisms of Gatekeeping Theory

1. Descriptive Only

Gatekeeping theory is not without its weaknesses. The most important of these is probably the fact that it is purely descriptive, which means that it is not as strong in its predictive power.

Its value is in its ability to explain what is happening now (how news stories are selected and filtered), but it has little to say about how the process of gatekeeping will change and when.

2. Too General

Another objection focuses on the idea that the concept of gatekeeping is too general:

“Gatekeepers and gatekeeping might be anything, under the appropriate circumstances, weakening the ability to decompose gatekeeping analytically as a process or to focus on the gatekeeping itself as the main topic” (Barzilai-Nahon, 2009, p. 38).

Gatekeeping is a broad concept that needs to integrate insights from different fields when it deals with challenging questions.

3. Out of Date

Gatekeeping theory also needs an update. It is often challenging for scholars to describe and analyze new gatekeeping phenomena using traditional methods.

This isn’t so much a criticism of gatekeeping theory in general but a criticism of gatekeeping theory in its present form.

With traditional media, gatekeeping typically describes a one-way relationship. But in the context of new media, the influence of the “gated” must also be considered (Barzilai-Nahon, 2009, p. 42 & DeFleur & DeFleur, 2016, p. 197).

Gatekeeping Theory Origins

The term originated from a study conducted by Kurt Lewin during WWII.

Lewin had been asked to develop an understanding of the process by which average American families chose the foods they consumed and prepared at home (DeFleur & DeFleur, 2016, p. 190).

It was this study that led to Lewin’s development of the concepts of a “gate” and a “gatekeeper” (Lewin, 1943). David Manning White was the first to apply the concept of gatekeeping to the selection of news.

Conclusion

The process of screening and selecting information through the use of complex criteria before that information reaches the public is known as gatekeeping. Gatekeeping theory tries to understand this process.

Today, gatekeeping theory remains a compelling explanation of an important aspect of mass communication.

However, due to the difficulties that arise from trying to apply traditional gatekeeping theory to contemporary mass communication, new theories are emerging. These theories expand gatekeeping theory by analyzing the role of the gated along with the role of the gatekeepers.

References

Barzilai-Nahon, K. (2009). Gatekeeping: A critical review. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 43(1), 1–79. https://doi.org/10.1002/aris.2009.1440430117

Beard, F., & Olsen, R. L. (1999). Webmasters as mass media gatekeepers: A qualitative exploratory study. Internet Research, 9(3), 200–211. https://doi.org/10.1108/10662249910274601

Carter, T. B. (1998). Electronic gatekeepers: Locking out the marketplace of ideas. Communication Law and Policy, 3(3), 389–408. https://doi.org/10.1080/10811689809368657

DeFleur, M. L., & DeFleur, M. H. (2016). Mass Communication Theories: Explaining Origins, Processes, and Effects. Taylor & Francis.

Lewin, K. (1943). Forces Behind Food Habits and Methods of Change. In Bulletin of the National Research Council. CVIII. pp. 35-65.

Shoemaker, P. J., & Vos, T. P. (2009). Gatekeeping Theory. Routledge.

White, D. M. (1950). The “Gate Keeper”: A Case Study in the Selection of News. Journalism Quarterly, 27(4), 383–390. https://doi.org/10.1177/107769905002700403

Tio Gabunia (B.Arch, M.Arch)
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Tio Gabunia is an academic writer and architect based in Tbilisi. He has studied architecture, design, and urban planning at the Georgian Technical University and the University of Lisbon. He has worked in these fields in Georgia, Portugal, and France. Most of Tio’s writings concern philosophy. Other writings include architecture, sociology, urban planning, and economics.

Chris Drew (PhD)
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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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