Gatekeeping Theory

Want to dive deeper? The best resource for Gatekeeping theory info is Gatekeeping Theory by Shoemaker + Vos (amazon link).

Gatekeeping is the process of selecting, and then filtering, items of media that can be consumed within the time or space that an individual happens to have. This means gatekeeping falls into a role of surveillance and monitoring data. These gatekeeping decisions are made every day to sort out the relevant items that audiences will see.

The gatekeeping theory of mass communication is a method which allows us to keep our sanity. By consuming content that is most relevant to us each day, we can ignore the billions of additional data points that are calling for our attention.

The Concept of Gatekeeping:

The gatekeeper decides what information should move past them (through the information “gate”) to the group or individuals beyond, and what information should not. Gatekeepers are the at a high level, data decision makers who control information flow to an entire social system. Based on personal preference, professional experience, social influences, or bias they allow certain information to pass through the their audience.

As a direct exmaple, in the news medium the editor plays this vital role. Commonly referred to as Mr. Gates (brilliant right?), he (she) has to decide what kind of news items will be published and what should not. Every day the news channel receives various news items from all over the world. The channel has its own set of ethics, policies, and biases through which the editor decides the news items that will be published, aired, or killed. In some cases some news items are rejected by the editor due the organizations policy or the news items which are not suitable for publishing, this is also considered part of the gatekeeping function..

Because of this, gatekeeping also sets a specific standard for information value. In a world where “fake news” often competes with “real news,” gatekeeping can be programmed to tell the differences between the two types of content so that only the preferred data points are consumed by each individual. Gatekeeping may also hold influence on policies and procedures, playing the role of a watchdog within society or simply playing into the audience’s confirmation bias. Humans are also their own gatekeepers at the point of consumption, creating a secondary filter for information. For example, if you live in Northern Canada and the informational gatekeeper pushes through content that talks about suntan lotion, the individual may filter the content and discard it because it is not relevant to them at that time.

Even the attitudes toward content changes based on a personal perspective. People tend to support one side or the other in any media-related debate. The same news item coming from CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News can be presented in different ways and trigger audiences preconceived notions about the agenda of that news organization. That favoritism can make a subject seem more or less important based on how the data points are consumed and presented.

A Quick History of Gatekeeping:

The idea was first posited by Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), a German psychologist and pioneer in social psychology. He developed his concept in his quest to understand the human behavior and its important consideration of total life space (looks this up, it’s a very interesting concept in social psychology). He focused more on personal perception and how a person worked to understand their own world (physical, mental and social) through frequent conversation and acknowledgement of memories, desire, and goals. He coined the word called “Gate keeping” in his studies. At first it was widely used in the field of psychology and social psychology and later moved to the field of communication as mass communication because a speciic area of study (largely due to the advent of mass publication technology). Now it’s one of the essential and foundational theories in communication studies.

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