What is Gatekeeping?

The gatekeeping metaphor is used to describe the behavior of a gatekeeper, an individual, who withholds, selects or transforms messages transmitted from the sender and pass on to the receiver those messages that he or she feels appropriate to the receiver’s needs. It is concerned with the selection, creation and control of messages. — Kurt Lewin

By definition, Gatekeeping is the practice by which the billions of messages that are available in the world get cut down and transformed into the hundreds of messages that reach a given person on a given day.

Based on the suggestion of Donohue, Tichenor, and Olien (1972),

Gatekeeping may be defined broadly as a process of information control that includes all aspects of message encoding: not just selection but also withholding, transmission, shaping, display, repetition, and timing of information as it passes from the sender to the receiver.

In other words, the gatekeeping process involves every aspect of message selection, handling, and control. MessagesOpens in new window can be withheld or transformed prior to passing them on, thus the receiver will receive different messages to those sent.

Gatekeeping in Communication Organization

An organization may have a person within a chain of communication operating as a gatekeeper, with the power to receive information and decides whether or not information will be passed on, filtering information, reducing the content of the information or blocking information flow (Shoemaker 1991, Emmitt 1994, 1999).

The concept of gatekeeping involves an activity performed by a communication organization and its representatives.

An act of gatekeeping in a communication organization will start at the point at which a communication worker first learns about an actual or potential messages and it will stop at the point at which a subset of those messages is transmitted to a receiver.

A gate is an “in” or “out” decision point, and messages may be deliberately directed at the communication organization from a variety of channels  Opens in new window.

For example, some messages may come from routine channels (e.g., from wire services or as the result of a news beat), some may come unsolicited (e.g., press releases), and others may be sought out by a communication worker (e.g., following up a possible news story) or even created by the communication worker (e.g., investigative reporting), some may enter the organization, others may be ignored or rejected.

Gatekeeping as a selection process offered communication workers a framework for analyzing, evaluating, and selecting some events and rejecting others.

On a microscopic level of analysis, gatekeeping may be conceptualized as the process of reconstructing the essential framework of an event and turning it into news. Analysts are bound to provide interpretation and may emphasize some aspects while downplaying others.

Communicators pick some elements of a message and reject others. The elements selected are evaluated according to their importance, with the most important elements being displayed most prominently and presented most quickly and/or frequently. One day’s news represents the effects of many gatekeepers at many gates.

It is probably not an overstatement to say that all communication workers are gatekeepers to some degree, for gatekeeping is an integral part of the overall process of selecting and producing messages. Not only is it impossible for everything to be transmitted, but it also is impossible to transmit something without in some fashion shaping it.

Importance of Gatekeepers

  1. Gatekeepers are important since they act as a physical gate through which information has to pass.
  2. Gatekeepers occupy a powerful position, conveying messages from one person to another or withholding all, or part, of the message.
  3. Gatekeepers can help other members of the network to avoid information overload by allowing through only what they feel is important information.
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The power to decide which potential information actually enters the organization can be determined by various psychological processes and individual characteristics including cognitive heuristics, models of thinking, socialization, second-guessing, values, attitudes, decision-making strategiesOpens in new window, role conceptions, and type of job.

The individual gatekeeper has likes and dislikes, ideas about the nature of his or her job, ways of thinking about a problem, preferred decision-making strategies, and values that all impinge on the decision to reject or select (and shape) information.

But the gatekeeper is not totally free to follow a personal whim; he or she must operate within the constraints of communication routines to do things this way or that. Of course, it is the gatekeeper who decides what is important to send on and what is important to withhold, there is always the danger that information may be withheld that should have been passed on simply because the gatekeeper has made an incorrect decision.

All of this also must occur within the framework of the communication organization, which has its own priorities but also is continuously buffeted by influential forces from outside the organization. And, of course, none of these factors—the individual, the routine, the organization, or the social institution—can escape the fact that it is tied to and draws its sustenance from the social system.

Although the gatekeeping metaphor has largely concentrated on the selection of news items within the mass media, it can also be applied to any decision point involving any bit of information, whether transmission is expected to occur through mass or interpersonal channels. For example, Schramm (1949b, pp. 175-176), distinguished between “media chains” and “interpersonal chains”—both channels through which messages can pass from sender to receiver, via gatekeepers.

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