Gatekeeping: Filtering the Crazies
The legislator, State Rep. Bob Morris (R-Fort Wayne), outlined his concerns about the organization’s liberal agenda in a Feb. 18 letter to his colleagues in the Indiana Statehouse. The comments were so absurd that Morris was derided by the Speaker of the House, a fellow Republican.
Morris later told reporters he regretted writing the letter, but I suspect he was covering up the truth. I believe Morris only regretted the fact the letter was distributed to a national audience. When Fort Wayne’s local newspaper, The Journal Gazette, published the verbatim text of the letter, Morris became the object of ridicule among political commentators and Girl Scouts supporters. As he stated his regret, Morris said “the letter was intended for only my colleagues in the Statehouse.”
As I followed the coverage, I couldn’t help but wonder how this issue might have been covered 10 years ago.
While I do not subscribe to The Journal Gazette, I highly suspect Morris’s entire letter was not published in the print edition of the paper. It is far more likely the paper ran only an excerpt or a reporter’s story about the letter.
The fact Morris’s entire letter was published online reveals another way in which the media landscape has changed among daily newspapers. More specifically, it reveals how online media has not only changed the role of timeliness, but also the media’s gatekeeping function. The Journal Gazette‘s website gave Morris’s comments unlimited space and a national audience. Sadly, this will never be the possible for newspapers.
It’s understandable that members of a business sector that for hundreds of years has relied on thick stacks of paper to be distributed on a streetcorner or delivered to a front door would be concerned about a service that renders physical distribution almost useless. However, the change in gatekeeping is another way in which new media sometimes can be great for consumers but ominous for the talented professionals of the industry.
Why would anyone read a story about a controversial letter when they could simply read the letter themselves?
As someone who appreciates skilled writing and analysis, I would prefer to read both – but I don’t think many Americans feel the same way.
Still, this issue illuminates a dark side of new media gatekeeping. Those who read the letter without following up with an accurate news story received a radically skewed interpretation of the Girl Scouts of America.
Traditionally, readers would have been exposed to the content of the letter within the context of a balanced news story. A responsible reporter would have explained that opponents view Morris’s comments as inaccurate and misleading.
Without this explanation, readers may pull their daughters out of the scouts or speak out against the organization because of the fallacious and hyperbolic ramblings of a gullible legislator.
In publishing Morris’s letter, The Journal Gazette abandoned their gatekeeping role and published radical nonsense.
While the decision does not reflect the traditional journalistic approach, it provides a clear illustration of the new role of the media:
Provide access to as much as possible, as quickly as possible.
Can we get video of the controversial speech? Great!
Full text of the inflammatory letter? Sure!
Did we fact check the content in order to prevent confusion among our readers? Eh. Just make sure the time stamp beats the other guys.