Organically Modified News Networks: Gatekeeping in Social Media Coverage of GMOs

Organically Modified News Networks: Gatekeeping in Social Media Coverage of GMOs

Jacob Groshek (Boston University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1081-9.ch007
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Abstract

The notion of news networks has changed from primarily one of print and broadcast networks to one of social networks and social media. This study examines the intersection of technological affordances, dialogic activity, and where traditional news gatekeepers are now situated in the contemporary multi-gated and networked media environment. Using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as a topical issue, social data was collected from Twitter. The most connected (and connecting) users were algorithmically identified and then sorted into ‘community' groups. The resultant graphs visually and statistically identify which users were important gatekeepers and how the flow of information on this topic was being structured around and by certain users that acted as ‘hubs' of communication in the network. Results suggest that the ongoing evolution of networked gatekeeping has led to the virtual absence of journalists and news organizations from prominence in social media coverage on certain topics, in this instance GMOs. Normative implications are discussed.
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Introduction

The concept of media gatekeeping is one that dates back generations and generally has come to be accepted as part and parcel of the activities journalists and editors carry out as they construct the news (Gitlin, 1980). To some extent, the activity of gatekeeping was observed to be an essential byproduct of traditional media outlets such as newspapers, televisions and radio programs having a finite amount of space and time to cover news (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). Put simply, in the course of a given news cycle, media reports could not cover all events or topics that occurred, so journalists and editors adapted professional strategies and routines in the performance of news gathering and the selection of news stories (Gans, 1979) such that, at least historically speaking, “the news aims to tell us what we want to know, need to know, and should know” (Tuchman, 1978, p. 1).

In one of the first formalizations of gatekeeping as a theoretical framework in the journalism and communication field, White (1950) examined how a “gatekeeper” in the complex channels of media organizations managed the news gate. In that study the editorial decision-making process and resultant information flow in two American newspapers was modeled through analyses of the criteria that editors used to make judgments about whether a story was newsworthy or not. Since the White study—where he researched why particular wire editors selected or rejected the news stories that were filed based on their perceived importance, available space and timeliness—there has been an ongoing stream of research that has considered how gatekeeping has been transformed in response to technological developments and shifts in sociocultural norms. Indeed, based explicitly on White’s original formulation (1950), Ali and Fahmy wrote that gatekeeping as a theory “is defined as the selection process of choosing stories and/or visuals that follow the organization's’ news routines and narratives” (2013, p. 65).

Yet since White’s seminal work that identified “gatekeeping as a selection process where ‘gatekeepers’ pick and choose which news articles and/or visual images to run in the media” (as cited in Ali & Fahmy, 2013, p. 55), the conceptualization of gatekeeping has come to take on finer and more nuanced perspectives. Specifically, in looking at network gatekeeping (Barzilai-Nahon, 2008), it is clear that gatekeeping has morphed into an increasingly dynamic and situation-specific activity taken on by an increasingly wider scope of individuals. In short, as online and social media technology has democratized the capacity for individuals to create and share media, the notion of gatekeeping has conceptually remained intact but has expanded as a practice far beyond White’s original conceptualization of who gatekeepers are.

Just as communication technologies have opened up vast opportunities for the re-orientation of information flows around non-hierarchical users as gatekeepers, technological advances have also facilitated the increased production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which have emerged into the food stream since at least the late 1980s as a commercially available product (Chassy, 2007). While the historical roots of humans genetically altering plants date at least to Mendel and his hybridization of peas in the early 1800’s (Henig, 2000), GMOs have taken on a contentious position socially and politically in many countries in the last several decades (Stephan, 2014). As examples, there were anti-GMO demonstrations that took place in approximately 400 cities around the globe on May 23, 2015 (Guardian, 2015) yet exactly two months later, on July 23, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a pro-GMO ban on states requiring GMO labeling on food (House Committee on Agriculture, 2015).

Altogether, this study is thus positioned to offer insights into not only the ongoing renegotiation of traditional news organizations and journalists as gatekeepers in the contemporary emergent and multi-gated media environment but also how this transformation of the public sphere continues to take shape (Galata, Karantinisis & Hess, 2014) on social media in coverage of GMOs.

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