Online Journalism Ethics

Gatekeeping

by Kendyl Salcito

Journalists have long considered themselves the gatekeepers of news and information for the public. Indeed, whether self-imposed or not, some form of gatekeeping seems unavoidable in journalism. In any newspaper, magazine, or news broadcast, an editor judges which stories are appropriate, which sources are credible, which quotes are valuable, and so on.

 
Stephen Colbert’s Bush and White House Press Corp roast. Photo from Wikipedia, stillframe from C-SPAN television.

Gatekeeping in early journalism history was not considered a serious editorial problem, because it was assumed that almost anyone could operate a press and express views. When presses became expensive and moguls created major news organizations, the problem of gatekeeping arose.

Gatekeeping -- as a system of rules, editorial checks and other verificational processes -- became important to journalism ethics with the rise of the modern newspaper in the late 19th century, when papers advertised claims of their objectivity and factual in news reporting. In this context, gatekeeping became a norm of responsible reporting, where editors and journalists checked their reports for facts and balance. Only by the mid-1900s, when concerns arose about media power and concentration, did analysts begin to see gatekeeping as potentially harmful to journalism and to democracy.

With the advent of the internet, has information flow been freed from the gatekeepers of mainstream news media? Or has news become compromised, barely distinguishable from rumor and gossip? The news media’s gatekeeping role used to dictate the newsworthiness of an event – in terms of its importance and also its validity. The rise of the internet has, to resort to an often-used metaphor, left gate keepers guarding their gates while the rest of the wall crumbles away. Since the news media can no longer monitor what does and does not reach the public sphere, the task of gatekeeping has become more methodological and analytical, stressing the verification of facts and the reliability of sources.

Description of the problems
The fundamental ethical problems stem from both the existence of gatekeeping mechanisms and the deterioration thereof. These problems are perhaps best exemplified in two case studies. The first, a case of excessive media gatekeeping, arises in Myanmar (formerly Burma). The other, a case of disenfranchised gatekeepers, arises in the United States. The relative powerlessness of North American gatekeepers engenders the risk that news media may lack authority even to counteract false rumors spread in the blogosphere and on partisan websites.

BURMA – Gatekeeping at its Strongest
The Burmese news media consists almost entirely of government-sponsored (and censored) publications and broadcasts. Editors-censors rid international articles of any ‘unwanted’ information before printing or airing them. Burmese journalists have learned to self-censor rather than risk harsh punishment and firing. The result is a media of one gate, rigorously guarded. There are no bloggers in Myanmar, as internet use is restricted to government-monitored non-web email and a few token websites approved by the government. Yahoo, Google, and NYTimes.com are unknown entities in Myanmar.

The system is highly effective for the information-disseminators, because the precise message they hope to relay to the public is in fact relayed impeccably (though not always credibly). Obviously, however, this micromanagement severely hampers a free press.

Recently, a Burmese expatriate refugee group (The Democratic Voice of Burma) based in Europe began broadcasting a Burmese-language television and radio show from Norway into Myanmar. Though DVB is in its own right a gatekeeper, submitting only its pre-selected information to the airwaves, the new gate it created provides an alternate viewpoint from the government-supported broadcasts. Destruction (albeit partial) of the gatekeeping mechanism is providing a portion of the Burmese population with the means and mindset for discourse.

In this extreme example of gatekeeping, it is clear that when the gates are breached, diverse ideas and discussions can arise. Some analysts feel that democracy can be empowered as gatekeepers fade away. As more voices fill the public sphere, replacing the old -- and few -- voices of authority, the diversity of popular opinion becomes the new basis for thought and analysis. In that regard, it may seem that the role of gatekeeper is obsolete and should be eradicated. But recent events in the United States, such as those during the 2004 presidential election, suggest that gatekeeping is still important, in some forms.

The United States – Gatekeeping at its Weakest?
A number of incidents in the United States exemplify the risks of a media without gatekeepers. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel, in their book Warp Speed, used the Monica Lewinsky affair to illustrate the shift in news gatekeeping in the internet age. Within the first chapter, Rosentiel and Kovach assert that the unverified reporting on President’s sexual affair with the White House intern showed that “there are no more gatekeepers.” Anything is publishable because anyone can publish a blog. Taken a step further, as political author James B. Stuart does, the gatekeepers are those who, “armed with the technology of the internet,” produce their stories with extraordinary speed, without “filtering information on grounds of taste, relevance, or accuracy.” In 2004, the consequences of weak gatekeeping were evident in a rumor, spread by Matt Drudge, that the Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, had an affair with a female journalist. The Wall Street Journal, the British tabloid The Sun, and the National Review (not to mention countless bloggers) took the Kerry rumor at face value, spreading it, unsubstantiated, among their readers. However, to their credit, several mainstream media outlets adhered to their journalistic principles and ignored the story until Alexandra Polier, the alleged “other woman,” denied the rumor.

Not all journalists continue to adhere to the role and standards of gatekeeper. Hard evidence is sometimes hard to come by, and some journalists have shirked their journalistic responsibilities to build a story where facts are scarce. Some of the U.S. news coverage in the wake of the Katrina hurricane of 2005 exemplifies this failure. According to Henry W. Fischer III, the Director of the Center for Disaster Research and Education at Millersville University in Pennsylvania: "The bigger and more diffuse the disaster, the more the gatekeeping function of the media fails in the rush to get the story out." Katrina coverage was rife with rumor, and wild death-toll estimates, many of which originated in online accounts provided by bloggers.

However, bloggers and citizen-journalists are in a position to improve the quality of news and criticize the news media for shortfalls in their information-gathering and reporting. They help circulate information that the mainstream media could miss. Such was the case in the wake of the assassination of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn in May 2002. The traditional news media labeled Fortuyn “anti-Muslim,” “hard right wing,” and “the Dutch [equivalent of France’s fascist candidate] Jean Marie Le Pen” even as they called his assassination a tragedy. The harsh labels overlooked Fortuyn’s actual political platform, though. Web writers (particularly Adam Curry www.curry.com ) brought a valuable alternative perspective to light, describing the much more complicated issues that Fortuyn addressed, including deep concern for Muslim women’s rights, apprehension about the open-minded nature of Dutch society (he was gay) in the face of a hugely conservative Islamic influx, and a basic culture clash. Curry’s blog explained that Fortuyn “never called for a ‘Ban on immigration’ or ‘Removal of Muslims’. ... What Pim did do, was start the public debate about immigration and the standard of living in the Netherlands, which is the second most densely populated country in the world.” Whether one agrees with Curry or not, bloggers like him can provide more information and perspective on news and issues.

Novel Uses of Gatekeeping
Journalist-bloggers lend credibility to their online discourses by providing links to websites containing their raw data and references (e.g. a Gallup poll cited in an article will include a hyperlink to the poll results). At the same time, they frequently add hyperlinks that send readers to the top US daily newspapers and news agencies such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and the Associated Press, thus almost re-evoking the gatekeepers.

Gatekeeping has taken on an intriguing new shape in the form of Britain’s new Channel 4 online news shows. Beginning in October, 2005, Channel 4 is broadcasting soft news shows strictly online. The topics thus far are special-interest (cars, fashion, technology and the like), so their news value is limited at this point. The novelty is the format: the shows are in chapter format, so viewers can pick and choose what they want to watch. Enabling viewers to become their own gatekeepers in broadcast journalism could have positive and/or negative results. Possibly the public gatekeeping will enable news broadcasters to broaden their sphere of coverage and target a wider audience. Equally probable, however, online broadcasters could opt to cut the less-visited news chapters on their online shows, thus limiting the scope of broadcast news.

Useful Links

Blog note on an article by Guardian journalist Sean Hargrave regarding the power of blogs over industries
http://www.stargeek.com/item/233951.html

Steve Yelvington, internet strategist, on the “death” of gatekeeping and the tasks that remain in its stead for journalists
http://www.yelvington.com/item.php?id=588

Journalism student Bradley Osborne’s masters thesis. Includes a thoughtful review of gatekeeping ethics.
http://bradleyosborn.com/z/RESUME/academic/ethics_and_credibility_in_online_journalism.pdf

Quick study: Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media. By Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. The Century Foundation Press, 1999.


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