Wednesday, 8 February, 2023

Why Should Journalists Worry As Gatekeepers?

Dr. Sudhamshu Dahal

It is quite obvious now that the rapid and pervasive advancement in information and communication technology (ICT) has started to impact every aspect and endeavour of human life. As a sector directly related to the humanity and human advancement, media has been one of the early adopters of technological changes and has quite a strong potential to redefine itself. The ICT development has been so fast that within a span of a decade, the people tend to forget what has been old in media and its technology.
This article seeks to focus on the technological changes in media production, distribution and consumption. The massive reduction in the costs, expanded research on usability and wide availability in different yet similar forms have not only expanded the media access to a wider population but it has at the same time also redefined our age-old perspective and practice of doing media for good.
The ICT revolution has brought about so many new avenues of representation in people’s desires and needs to communicate every aspect of his/her activity. It has also transcended how media is produced, distributed and consumed. Journalism has been one of the privileged professions in the modern society, not because it has a power of storytelling but because of whose stories it tells.

Privileged access
Journalists have indemnity and privileged access to any information in the society. There has been a profound belief that journalists are trustworthy social group as they craft information into news accurately and fairly within the set deadline. This is obvious matter. But what is not obvious is the journalists’ privileged access to information is challenged by the sources themselves and by a phenomenon, which I call ‘zero waiting disclosures’.
A ‘zero-waiting disclosure’ is an instantaneous spread of information about any event in an unfettered and unfiltered raw format based on the accounts of witnesses, which has the potential of becoming news. News is produced from information being assessed by a journalist following variety of standard procedures. News verses zero-waiting disclosure is both a trend and a challenge to the journalists in 21st century.
To further clarify this argument, I would like to bring an idea of gatekeeper in this context. What is the role of a gatekeeper? Isn’t gatekeeping a part of a standard operating procedure for journalists and news media? Gatekeeping is generally an approach that would allow keeping sanity on information to help take decisions that are made every day to sort out the relevant items that audiences will see. If we just look at the theory, gatekeeping is a method which allows us to keep sanctity of news amidst abundant information. By consuming content that is most relevant to us each day, we can ignore the billions of additional information that are calling for our attention.
Because of this, gatekeeping also sets a specific standard for information value. In a world where “fake news” often competes with “real news,” gatekeeping can be programmed to tell the differences between the two types of content so that only the preferred information is consumed by each individual. Now the question is: How has this role of gatekeeping been challenged by the new and emerging media technologies? And more closely, should a journalist worry about it?
Journalists should worry because their professional strength and aptitude to gather, report and disseminate news has been shifted to amateur individuals equipped with a mundane tool such as a camera phone. Then what should the journalist do? How can they ensure the authenticity in information sharing and news making if they are losing one of their arsenals?
As we live in the post-truth era that advocates multiple truths in place of a single truth, the journalist’s worry should not be confined in arguing for the standard operating practice but rather to explore in opening more avenues of truth seeking. One way to do so is to adapt and enhance the truth-seeking mechanism within the journalism sector. This might mean to begin with the journalists getting new literacy on digital journalism or plainly put, have more training on ICT. To be a digital literate not only means to keep up with the know-how of what is latest in the technology but grasping the philosophy of being digital. Being digital or making it digital is primarily premised on the two notions that is directly contributory to truth seeking; one is transparency and the other is accountability.
This means the pejorative domain of exclusivity in the information access has to be transcended in understanding that journalists still stand high in their profession by maintaining the sanity in information sharing. This entails doing again the very basics of gatekeeping but in a profoundly changed way by standing on the twin pillars of transparency and accountability. But we should not interpret the idea of transparency with that of a compromise on the source confidentiality. The sanity prevails only when the professional ethics is kept at the highest order.

Another component is the training of media professionals to cope with the new challenges brought in by new cutting edge technology. The role of educational institutions is of utmost importance here. Media, communication and journalism education is now advancing from the vocational apprenticeship to a subject of professional learning. The growth of media schools and demand of trained professional human resources on media and journalism sector is ever rising, generating both the opportunities and challenges. Some of the challenges are time tested and put a demand on us to evaluate and pursue them in immediacy.
The advancing media ICT will bring in tremendous potential for effective and meaningful communication for the humanities to engage in. At the same time, it also brings in new areas unopened thus far, challenges unassumed and perspective unthought of.

(Dr. Dahal is a professor and teaches ICT, New Media and Society at Kathmandu University School of Arts)