Getting around the gatekeepers

"We're always looking for ways to get around the gatekeepers with their narrow gates," journalism historian Mitch Stephens told Online Journalism Review. 1 The "gatekeepers" in this case are the mainstream news organizations that have long had exclusive power to select the information that becomes "news." With the Internet giving anyone with a computer the capacity to be a news publisher, the gates are no longer as narrow.

Politicians especially are using this newfound power. In previous generations, politicians simply sought to exploit the deadline structure of newspapers by releasing information when it could give them the greatest benefit or do the least harm. In recent years, politicians have used campaign ads to transmit messages, often slurs against the opposition, without being forced to rely on a reporter who may challenge assertions and omit them from the news report. 2 Today, politicians can start Web sites to give their side of the story without running the risk of seeing their 500-word issue statements reduced to a 10-second sound bite.

At least one politician is intrigued by the possibility of using the power of the Internet to start a full-fledged "news network." An assistant to maverick Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura has purchased the rights to the Internet addresses,, and The assistant Phil Madsen, told Editor & Publisher that he could see a "news crew of 50 people" shadowing Ventura to report on his activities. 3

While individual politicians may have trouble getting such schemes off the ground, other newsmakers already have elaborate Web sites, and they may prefer to distribute news through these sites while shunning reporters seeking interviews. Sports organizations have taken the lead in this respect, with professional sports leagues and the NCAA, which oversees college sports, posting results, game stories, and features on their own Web sites. Reporters from several Web sites, meanwhile, have complained that they have been denied access to various sports events. 4

Most journalists, however, seem unworried by the prospect of newsmakers distributing their own "news." Only 29 percent of national journalists surveyed in the Pew/CCJ study said "the ability of the public to bypass the news media and go directly to information sources" has a "negative effect." 5 Ventura's proposed "news network" earned a dismissal from Dave Pyle, Minneapolis bureau chief for the Associated Press:

"You've got to give the public more credit than I think these people are. Think of how people take in news of their representatives in Congress. They hardly depend on a senator's own Web site for information about that the senator. The public knows that the information there is going to be spun to the benefit of the person who has the Web site. It would be no different for Gov. Ventura." 6

The journalists interviewed for this paper agreed. The media critic said, "Fortunately, a lot of people still tend to mistrust [governments] and candidates and appreciate the innate skepticism of reporters. (And some, of course, don't.)" 7 When asked how newsmakers' Web sites affected their work, the participants listed only minor effects. A TV-affiliated Web site manager said readers might get trash collection schedules from the city rather than local news organizations,8 and a newspaper reporter said he sometimes finds candidates less accessible, though he can easily work around the problem by finding other sources. 9 None of the participants considered newsmakers' Web sites a major problem in their daily work.

Perhaps a greater concern is the ability of anyone with a computer to publish "news," especially for purposes of propaganda that can easily reach around the world. This practice became prevalent during the Kosovo war, in which each side sought to distribute its message through the Web. Some groups used more invasive tools of the Internet; hackers caused the NATO Web site to experience outages, and Serb groups bombarded computers with e-mail, a practice called "spam" by many Internet users. "What you're seeing now is just the first round of what will become an important, highly sophisticated tool in the age-old tradition of wartime propaganda," Anthony Pratkanis, a psychology professor and author of Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion, told the Kansas City Star. 10 Journalists could face a challenge getting and distributing accurate information as this practice grows.

Another competitive threat comes from sites in which readers share information among themselves. One such site is, which includes some contributions from professional journalists but is primarily a site in which readers post comments on bulletin boards. "Unlike traditional journalism, is informal and to the point," wrote Jon Katz, a Slashdot contributor and professional journalist who also writes for the journalism think tank The Freedom Forum. "It's [sic] contributors are not the ponderous gasbags of many newspaper op-ed pages, but people who would never be published on one." 11

One selling point for sites such as Slashdot is that it gives a voice to those who have been unable to get their message through the gatekeepers. Katz claims that Slashdot performed this service after a shooting spree at Columbine High School in Colorado. While the mainstream media reports portrayed certain groups of kids as likely killers, Katz argued in a commentary in Brill's Content, these kids were able to "speak" on Slashdot to argue that they were being misrepresented. 12

This point of view, though, underestimates the ability of journalists to raise conscientious objections within the mainstream. One of American history's most lauded journalists, Ida B. Wells, raised a strong challenge to existing journalistic practices in the days of newspaper domination. "It's Wells' critique of phony balance — two sides to every story — that has informed the better critiques of objectivity today, " wrote Jonathan Alter in Washington Monthly. 13 Newspapers' opinion pages regularly include criticism of the paper's coverage, particularly in the letters to the editors, in which Americans are prone to proclaim their frustration with the newspaper staff in any tone they choose. 14

While reader input can be useful, handing readers the keys to the gates can be an abdication of responsibility on the part of the gatekeepers. Rick Marin raised this issue in Newsweek after watching NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw ask President Clinton a question submitted by an MSNBC viewer: "We watch Brokaw for his years of experience, not so some amateur can feed him questions." 15 A skilled interviewer can draw on this experience to challenge assertions and elicit detailed responses, just as skilled reporters use these skills in each phase of the newsgathering process. Ignoring the value of these skills could cause lower standards in news, which will be explored in the next section.