Are Gatekeepers Still Necessary?
This Article was first published in The Gleaner (Jamaica) on Friday, September 7, 2018.
The media landscape in Jamaica is still very much traditional as gatekeeping is alive and well, but generally, anyone can publish anything. Thanks to the Internet, solid 'gates' have been turned into little more than screen doors, according to Chris Roberts in Gatekeeping Theory: An Evolution.
Interestingly, the term 'gatekeeper' emanated from an experiment in Iowa shortly after WW2 dubbed the 'Sweetbread Study', aimed at enticing Iowa women to eat secondary cuts of beef (heart, liver and kidneys) in an effort to have more prime cuts to feed the military. Researchers wanted to see if one-way communication could change consumption practices. The major conclusion drawn was that housewives controlled what entered the household and what ultimately ended up on the dining table - they were gatekeepers.
Researchers subsequently realised the gatekeeping theory could be extended to how news travels. That started a series of research in this area of mass communication. Gatekeeping is the process through which news organisations decide what to emphasise and what to neglect. The 'gates' we often see at work include the reporter, the news organisation, its economics, and the news-gathering technology.
In effect, the editorial model centred on curating information produced by armies of reporters has been turned on its head because anyone can create content and publish at the speed of light, no editor/gatekeeper needed. This is not breaking news.
The weakening of the role of gatekeepers has been on the lips of industry experts for years. This represents another aspect of digital disruption being experienced by all industries. Consumers are now content creators. We have all seen tweets, Facebook posts, blogs and videos not only making the news, but also driving it.
Surely, the decentralisation of gatekeeping comes with much freedom for publishers. But with this much freedom comes responsibility in equal measure. There are several implications for this new norm, first being that distribution is now really a function of sharing and promoting your content. Second, it has become the responsibility of organisations producing the content to get it right.
Be that as it may, there are benefits to having gatekeepers: consistency, quality control, and streamlining - just to name a few. These are achieved through several processes, including extensive research, due diligence, fact-checking, as well as grammar and spellchecking. Without these processes, we see delays, factual inconsistencies, and, in some cases, duplication.
Traditional gatekeepers (the media) are especially vulnerable when making the decisions about what is 'of interest to the public' and 'in the public interest'.
Consider the stand-off between Prince Harry and the media regarding his love life prior to his marriage to Meghan Markle. Was this 'of interest to the public', or 'in the public's interest'? Many would argue the former. Also consider the recent controversy involving the former managing director of National Energy Solutions Limited (NESol), Carolyn Warren. Was the information of her convictions 'of interest to the public', or 'in the public's interest?
Some may rightly say it was both, considering the attendant issues surrounding the energy ministry. We see here where the media cannot justify its right to information from Prince Harry, but they could in relation to Ms Warren. One is gossip, the other is breach of public-sector employment policy.
All things considered, independently publishing information has its place as there is a lot to be learnt. For that reason, traditional media and new digital media must coexist and evolve together. Consumers and creators of content, now more than ever, must be smart and responsible about the offerings and their productions. Content creators have huge platforms from which to shout their messages.
The influencer market has exploded over the past five years creating Instagram and YouTube, stars. Whether we like it or not, these creators have a lot of power. It is amazing how loyal we are to errors once it they come from someone we trust. So, it is important to spread factually correct information.