The death of gatekeeping

The advent of social media has challenged the traditional gatekeeping role of journalism

The death of gatekeeping


elivering news full-throttle is the norm in almost all Pakistani news channels. I once asked a very senior editor of a leading news channel if he could make his female presenter “yell a bit less?” His response was: “Not possible, dear.” I was left wondering that if he could not do even that, just how much control did he have on content coming in from all directions.

It’s not just how media presents news and information. Even the concept of gatekeeping in journalism has somewhat changed over the last two decades or so. With the advent of social media, almost everybody has an opportunity to share whatever they think is news. There is almost no gate left to keep. It’s almost a free for all – without any discrimination. The only qualification is the ability to produce content for social media platforms and the skill to operate a smartphone. Anyone and everyone can be a ‘journalist’ if they can adhere to social media community standards.

Our lives are immersed in the digital atmosphere. Various digital services are now so closely intertwined with our daily lives that it is difficult to imagine life without search engines, the digital products of media companies, social media, streaming services and the internet in general. Various digital services, the platforms that provide them and the algorithms developed by those platforms have quite inconspicuously assumed a significant position of power about what kinds of information we are provided with, shaping the personalised media landscape that is presented to each of us based on the data that is collected about us.

Today’s social media is dominated by content creators and influencers. They can generate, disseminate and comment on news, affecting how information gains visibility. In an extremely polarised society, they determine what is to become the public’s social reality. They may wield a larger following gained in no time than a seasoned journalist may have after a lifetime’s work. They are perceived to be free from familiar influences, and hence, most of the time taken for their word. In some cases, they earn more than a journalist.

This poses a serious challenge to professional journalism. While journalists have to work within the confines of journalistic standards, vloggers and social media commentators have no such limitation. They can use unusual sources or mere hearsay to spice up their content leaving a professional journalist high and dry. This challenges the traditional gatekeeping role of professional journalism.

The first gatekeeping theory was introduced by the social psychologist Kurt Lewin in 1943. It is the process of controlling information as it moves through a gate. It is also the process through which information is filtered by the gatekeepers.

Gatekeeping is used to refer to the process by which decision-makers, political leaders, reporters and editors filter the information that reaches the public. With the advent of electronic media in Pakistan, the institution of gatekeeping was already diluted. TV channel owners took over mostly as editors, taking news agendas into their own hands. Authorities interested in using the media for their interests need not deal with actual reporters, they have most owners and anchors available.

This flow of information encourages echo chambers. People follow, watch and listen to content creators who support their ideas and thinking. These creators jump the gates of traditional journalism, giving their audiences the ultimate control over what they want to read, see or hear.

Instead of an experienced reporter or editor, now social media platforms themselves act as gatekeepers. Algorithms, influenced by user behaviour and platform policies, decide which posts appear on our timelines, thereby controlling the visibility and reach of information. These platforms are the new newspaper hawkers. They also seek money to boost journalistically weak content.

There have been studies in the West on this evolving situation. One by Julian Wallace at the University of Zurich discusses the rise of individuals, algorithms and platforms in digital news dissemination. The paper develops a digital gatekeeping model that synthesises classical gatekeeping theory with contemporary approaches, providing a framework for future research on information control and dissemination.

Despite these difficult times for gatekeepers, there is still a need for journalists to counter clickbait, fake news and non-journalistic social media pages. Digital media platforms following journalistic norms and ethics need not lose hope. They need to assert control over news construction and spread. This concerns the public’s need for credible sources.

The writer, a journalist for 33 years, has been an editor at the BBC in Pakistan for over two decades. Currently, he is the managing editor at Independent Urdu

The death of gatekeeping