Varieties of online gatekeeping

This week, I’ll be at the Rethinking Journalism II workshop organized by Chris Peters and others at Groningen University in the Netherlands.

I’ll speak Friday about varieties of online gatekeeping, and how we might analyze them. I don’t have the answer, but I’m working around ways of asking the question in a way that is intellectually interesting and practically useful, so I’m looking forward to feedback and suggestions, from the workshop participants, and from others interested in the topic.

My starting point is the notion of “gatekeeping”, used by journalism scholars to capture how news organizations filter information before it is passed on to users, and the observation that news organizations no longer occupy as central or singular a role as they have in the past in terms of doing this filtering work, as people increasingly rely on search engines like Google and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter as ways of accessing news.

Sometimes, people will talk about these digital offerings as ways of getting “direct” access to information, as examples of “disintermediation”, but of course, Google and Facebook too filters information, based on for example the PageRank algorithm and the EdgeRank algorithm. If we want to understand how journalism works today and how people get informed about public affairs, we need to understand both these new digital intermediaries as forms of online gatekeepers, and we need to examine their interplay with more traditional forms of editorial gatekeeping.

Below is an extended version of the abstract I’ve submitted. I’ll be working on this in the spring, both on getting the question right and on actually making progress on fleshing it out empirically, so any and all comments are welcome.

Varieties of online gatekeeping: a cross-national comparative analysis of news media websites, search engines, and social networking sites as gateways to news

By Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (Roskilde University and the University of Oxford)

News media organizations like newspapers and broadcasters have long functioned as gatekeepers between news and audiences, but with the rise of digital media, the search engines and social networking sites that are central to how most people navigate online increasingly complement news media organizations as gatekeepers shaping what is displayed as news.

Journalism scholars have traditionally focused on the role of journalists and news media as gatekeepers (see e.g. Shoemaker et al, 2009), but a growing number of researchers (e.g. Barzilai-Nahon, 2008; Chin-Fook and Simmonds, 2001; Hintz, 2012; Introna and Nissenbaum, 2000) have highlighted the need for a broader approach to gatekeeping in wider networked information environments where technology is increasingly integral to traditional gatekeeping practices (Anderson, 2011; Thurman, 2011; Coddington and Holton, 2013; Meraz and Papacharissi, 2013) and where non-journalistic actors too serve as gates between news and audiences.

In this paper, I adopt such a broader approach and outline three varieties of online gatekeeping that each integrate different technologies in the gatekeeping process, but do so in different ways and for different purposes. The three varieties are (1) editorially-based gatekeeping processes (typically defining what information is displayed as news on news media websites), (2) link-based gatekeeping processes (the core of how search engines like Google select what information is displayed as news), and (3) affinity-based forms of gatekeeping (the operating principle behind how social networking sites like Facebook determine what information to display in users’ news feed).

Journalists, often working in legacy news media organizations, still play a key gatekeeping role in terms of defining what information constitutes “news”, and news media websites remain amongst the most important gateways to news online. But they are increasingly supplemented by other, second-order online gatekeepers like search engines and social networking sites that, while rarely producing original content defined as “news”, increasingly serve as alternative and supplementary gateways shaping, through link-based or affinity-based gatekeeping processes, what information people come across as news online. Even as journalists and news media may feel they are being “dis-intermediated”, new digital intermediaries are arising (Pariser, 2011; Foster, 2012; Nielsen, 2013).

On the basis of the Reuters Institute Digital News study (Newman and Levy, 2013), a representative survey of online news users conducted in 2013, I proceed from these three varieties of online gatekeeping to present a cross-national comparative analysis of their relative importance in seven developed democracies with different media systems (Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK and the US).

The comparative analysis demonstrates significant variation in the relative importance of each type of online gatekeeper from country to country as well as in-country variation by age, but also documents that search engines and social networking sites (overwhelmingly Google and Facebook) have in less than a decade come to rival news media websites in importance as gateways to news across all the seven countries covered.

Editorially-based online gatekeepers are the most widely used way of finding news online in countries like Denmark and the UK (with strong newspaper brands and public service broadcasters), link-based online gatekeepers (overwhelmingly Google) represent the most widely used gateway to news in countries like France and Italy (with weaker newspapers and public service broadcasters), and affinity-based online gatekeepers (most importantly Facebook) are the most widely used gateway to news amongst online news users in Spain (currently experiencing a major crisis of institutional legitimacy impacting legacy media as well as political institutions).

Editorially-based gatekeepers will remain important for the foreseeable future (especially as television remains the number one source of news for most people in most countries). But as online news become a more and more important part of people’s cross-media news habits in most countries, link-based and affinity-based online gatekeepers are likely to become more important parts of our networked news environment, raising new questions concerning what media pluralism means in an increasingly convergent world, concerning what information is made available to citizens and how, and concerning the future journalism and its role in democracy.

One response to “Varieties of online gatekeeping

  1. “Trusted” gatekeepers are needed by most people too busy to dig for news themselves. Jon Stewart is a trusted gatekeeper. Walter Kronkite was a “trusted” gatekeeper. There is no one else who comes close to Kronkite today. Ratings driven news is not journalism; it is low budget burlesque.

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