Gatekeeping in Collaborative Media

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

In his article, “The Death and Life of the Book Review (new window),” from the June 21, 2010 issue of The Nation, John Palatella argues that, for all its crowdsourcing, shovelware and sock puppetry, the Web is nothing more than a postmodern throwback.


Although 75 percent of online news consumers get their news through email and social networking sites, and 52 percent forward and share news themselves (Purcell et al., 2010 (new window)), Palatella (2010) argues that the institution of journalism has not been transformed, but “restored to a ghostly, hyperactive version of the newspaper world of the early twentieth century” (p. 30).


However, what has certainly, and perhaps seemingly, been transformed by online news is the relationship between journalists and editors and their audiences, and more fundamentally, the nature of gatekeeping. While the enormity of the Web allows for even the most specialized user to find an audience, finding that information can be daunting, especially for first-time or inexperienced users. Even more daunting can be sorting through a mass of information about the same thing, and more daunting still, deciding which of that information is worth reading. In traditional media, these tasks have fallen on the gatekeeper.


On the Web, although the gatekeeping role is unclear, the term is used quite commonly, but without a corresponding theoretical framework to explain its dynamics. Research on traditional gatekeeping has mostly focused on the role of editors, journalists and news organizations, not that of newspaper readers. On the Web, however, these roles are interchangeable.


While there may be less need for traditional gatekeeping and editorial authority as users of news portals, social networking sites and wikis are more able to create and disseminate their own content on the Web, Barzilai-Nahon (new window) (2008) argued that although “network gatekeeping” can occur at formal, structural or community levels, the process is similar to that in traditional media, in that access to information is regulated by those who control it.


Nevertheless, traditional notions of hegemonic gatekeeping have been transformed by dynamic online environments, and even if there was editorial control in the supposedly utopian Web, when any user is given the “power or social capital to make authoritative decisions, then the community is effectively substituting the old elite gatekeepers from traditional media with new elite gatekeepers” (Keegan & Gergle, 2010, p. 132 (new window)).


Doctor (2010) (new window) posits that “we’ve become our own and each other’s editor” and that “gatekeeping is now a collective pursuit… that has “shifted from ‘us’ to ‘them,’ where ‘them’ includes a lowercase version of ‘us’ too” (para. 3).Whereas news aggregate sites and journalistic blogs rely on the “involvement of a loyal audience with a lot of enthusiasm and expertise,” the in-depth, investigative and thought-provoking reporting of print newspapers and magazines has not gained a following in the “rapid, superficial, appropriative, and individualistic” Web community (Palatella, 2010, p. 31).


One reason has been the diminishing of journalistic standards online where, according to Palatella (2010), “quantity beats quality, being first beats being the best…speed is confused with timeliness, and the value of timeliness is debased by speed” (p. 26). Whether, in this environment, news is selected by new media gatekeepers for its news value or its tabloid-like absurdity will determine the future credibility of online news, no matter how much we use it.