Media Gatekeepers today

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This write up studies the changing pattern of gatekeeping in contemporary form of mediation of news. The paradigm of gatekeeping has increased vastly from ‘editor’ as the only gatekeeper to the gatekeeping at every stage of communicating information. Selection of news is now based more on money, influence, power and agenda than the traditional principles of newsworthiness. Gatekeeping is an art and a responsibility but is losing its essence due to media convergence. Although ‘gatekeeping’ is becoming more of a negative connotation, it would still be required in a certain amount to check various unwanted and harmful information from being sent into the society.

  

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 Which news is more valuable: 21 people are killed and dozens are injured after the collision of two trains or the speeding train kills seven elephants?

 Most people would say both are equally important but the people who are actually involved in the process of news selection and placement will be holding a different view. One of the news stories will be given more value than the other and so would be placed accordingly in the news paper. One of them might take a position on the front page while the other might have to be satisfied by being on some inside page. Most of the times, the stories with comparatively less value might not even get a chance to be published if the space on the page is not enough. Everyday numerous events take place that need reporting but not all of them can be published in a news paper or be flashed on a TV screen or announced on a radio set.

 Traditionally, such decisions were based on the principles of news value and making such decisions used to be the major task of a ‘gatekeeper’ which was taken up by the ‘editor’ of a news paper. Every story that used to enter the newsroom had to go through the scrutiny of the editor and only after the editor approves, it was allowed to be published. Hence, it can be said that an editor used to have the final say in what is to be sent to the readers and what not. Editor was the sole authority holding the ‘gate’ through which the stories pass. The traditional theories and models on gatekeeping also laid emphasis on the importance of the role of an editor in the paradigm of news communication. The famous model of gate keeping given by D.M. White focused only on the role of an editor as the man who made decisions. However, his theory was criticized when the other factors influencing the decision started to gain recognition.

 The editors started losing their say in the news selection process as the media got 'locked into the power structure, and consequently as acting largely in tandem with the dominant institutions in society. The media thus reproduced the viewpoints of dominant institutions not as one among a number of alternative perspectives, but as the central and "obvious" or "natural" perspective' (Curran et al, 1982).  The element of ‘biasness’ affects the information that is received by the reader. The editor is required to keep in mind a number of things other than the news value principles for letting a story be published. The flow of information is being regulated by the gatekeepers who are not directly involved in the news gathering process but are the managers and the owners of the media firms or the advertisers or other stake holders. ‘Money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public’ (Herman and Chomsky, 1988). The political affiliation of a media outlet determines the ideology it would stand for and hence the gatekeeping will be done accordingly. The gatekeeper moulds the stories in a way that satisfy the interest of a political leader or a group and so changing the angle and slant of the real truth. ‘Mass media content is influenced by media workers' socialization and attitudes. Their professional training, personal and political attitudes and affiliations lead them to produce a social reality’ (Riaz, 2008)

 To a certain level, gatekeeping is very important for communication planning but the as the paradigm of news media has been over powered by the top tier of corporate, it has becoming more of a negative term. Commercial advertising is the principle source of revenue for media and is very important for ensuring the survival of the media houses. Infact, the biggest regulators of the flow of information are the commercial organizations providing financial support to the media outlets in the form of advertisements. This has not only changed the nature of flow of news but also the entire set up of a news paper. ‘25 years ago, we could never imagine that first page of a newspaper would be full page advertisement’ (Ray.T, personal communication, September 3, 2012). The news paper today looks more of a product catalogue than a news journal.

 On one hand, the globalization and liberalization provides a better scope of mediating while on the other it has given rise to commercialization of news. The profit making motives of the owners and publishers has led to backroom negotiation and encouraged payola which further leads withholding of information and possibilities and hence preventing the readers from realizing the importance of truth inorder to create the desired effect in the society. This can be easily related to agenda-setting. The gatekeeping today, is a vital part of the agenda-setting function of media as it is vastly used as a helping tool by the agenda setters. ‘According to the agenda-setting theory, because of the fact of paying attention to some issues and neglecting and ignoring some others, the mass media will have an effect on public opinion’ (Riaz, 2008). For example, while watching a cricket match on television, one cannot watch the action taking place in the whole ground and also the spectators present in the pavilion from every angle at the same time. What one watches at home on one’s TV screen is what the camera operators and the anchor choose to film. To show how exciting the match is, the camera operators and the anchor would show that part of the pavilion where the crowd of the cheering spectator is more even if the rest of the pavilion is empty or has very few people. Similary, in order to show people how boring the match is, the TV screen would flash the empty seats again and again.

 Even though today the information is coming from all corners, newspapers still remains as the top most trusted source and so the editorial decisions made in the dark without proper justification is not only an irresponsible but also a corrupt practice. Keeping the gate is a serious responsibility and if the gatekeeper’s integrity is lost, the news paper too will loose its integrity. The gatekeeper has the power to forward the selected news items to the consumers. Therefore, the gatekeeper must have a moral justification of selecting a news story over the other because with power comes the accountability. News comes from the people and goes back to them. People are the ultimate source and the consumers of information. Hence, it is very important to ensure that the interests of the people are met. But the commercialization of media has led to the rigorous ensuring of sending back to the public what they are interested in and what can be ‘discussed’.  Gatekeeping can be called as one of the barriers to communication because the gatekeepers decide the nature of thoughts that will be created in the minds of the people and dictate what is worthy of the attention of the receiver. Here, one can raise an eyebrow and can ask for one’s right to information. There is endless number of incidences where biased gatekeeping has brought bad consequences.        

 Disregarding the older concept of gatekeeping, it is now recognized that gatekeeping is exercised at almost every stage in the whole process communicating news. Earlier, due to the lack of space and time the editors used to leave out or ignore so many things but today, in the era of information over flow, the gatekeeping starts from the very first stage i.e. from the place of origin of event. The sources give some information and leave some and so the people who are the source of events act as a gatekeeper; a reporter is a gatekeeper as she might not send the full information to the newsroom or might send biased information and the chain goes on and stops back with the people as the consumers of the news by choosing what to consume and what to leave. So, the earlier notion of editors as the only gatekeeper is no more true. Some exogenous factors like pressure groups and flak (Herman and Chomsky, 1988) are also keeping the gates and mark their presence by pressurizing the media outlets to stop certain information from being conveyed to the citizens. For an example, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses received a highest level of criticism by the religious pressure group accusing Rushdie for blasphemy. This not just banned the readers to read this book but also did not allowed Rushdie to openly address the public. Here the religious pressure group was the gatekeeper.

 Not allowing people equal access to information is also a form of gatekeeping. This creates information gap and disparity between the haves and the haves-not of knowledge. In a democratic set up like ours, everyone should have the right to equal access to information. For example, the Internet service providers including both private and government provide higher speed at higher prices. Therefore, somebody who cannot afford higher prices cannot have the information. Similarly, the uploading speed provided is much less than the downloading speeds (Ray.T, personal communication, September 3, 2012). This again acts as a gate for the citizen journalists who wish to share some important piece of information they have with the world.  

The biggest gate that needs the highest attention and should be completely removed is ‘illiteracy’. Illiteracy completely stops the people from getting the information they must have. Lack of education leads to lack to basic standard of living due to lack of knowledge about improving and adopting better life style. Illiteracy must be fought and defeated as soon as possible so that everyone can read newspaper and keep oneself informed. Education is the most important endowment needed for empowerment.

 However, today, communication obstruction is becoming less with increasing efforts to spread education and equality in receiving information. More and more media outlets are coming up that are equipped with more information. So, the readers no longer have to rely on the imperfect news sources for full story. The news today has the ability to escape the ‘gates’ and reach the target. In her study, Singer contended that “the power of gatekeepers seems to diminish in a modern information society. The Internet defies the whole notion of a ‘gate’ and challenges the idea that journalists (or anyone else) can or should limit what passes through it” (wikipedia). Websites, blogs, social networking sites, community media, SMSs and other such ways of communication help the information to escape the gates. Sometimes, a piece of information becomes known to people even before entering the main stream media due to the above mentioned new media.

 The new media does not have many gatekeepers today because of which a lot of time, they are being misused. As the new media is much faster than the main stream media, information travels faster. The mischievous elements of the society use these media to create havoc in the society and bring terror in the minds of the people harming the security and sovereignty of the nation. By being the watchdogs, the gatekeepers can keep a check on the various corrupt elements of the society. Gatekeeping must return to its positive state where public good as an important factor was kept in consideration without any other influence and biasness.

 References

 Curran, James, Michael Gurevitch & Janet Woollacott (1982): 'The study of the media: theoretical approaches'. In Gurevitch et al. (Eds.)

 

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