The new rules of journalistic gatekeeping were debated among experts at Boston University on Oct. 26 in an afternoon session of a conference organized by the school's law and communications schools, and a Boston law firm.
One of the experts was the principle speaker Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Jurkowitz argued, contrary to statements made earlier in the day by keynote speaker Markos Moulitsas, another expert, that traditional gatekeeping is still a feature of American media.
Jurkowitz cited popular examples, such as the New York Times’ extensive delays in releasing the wiretapping stories, and the widespread ignorance of the Walter Reed abuse scandal, despite being covered by Salon, until it was carried in the Washington Post nearly a year later.
Also contrary to Moulitsas' singling out of citizen-based blog site as THE method for future journalism was Jurkowitz's assertion that some the old rules of gatekeeping do still apply. Jurkowitz discussed specifically the continued reluctance of mainstream media to report on the private lives of highly public figures, describing the gatekeeping system here as “non-existent”, as it has been historically.
The trend of alternative news networks breaking highly publicized stories such as election cycle sex scandals has cultivated new, rather unlikely gatekeepers out of former gate crashers such as Matt Drudge, who Jurkowitz referred to only half-jokingly as “the brand new arbiter of truth.”
Jurkowitz was also quick to acknowledge the impact that the introduction of new, viewer-driven forms of media has had on the news cycle. “The cacophony of voices” demanding to be heard has, according to Jurkowitz, fostered a “news and schmooze” environment in which user-generated content ends up in the mainstream because the success of media outlets depends on support from viewers.
The result has been that relatively insignificant events such as a convenience store robbery in the mid-west often end up on New England news channels, rather than more relevant hard news, simply because there is video to accompany it.
This has led news networks, especially television networks, to face an interesting dilemma, which Jurkowitz described as the debate between feeding the public “broccoli or twinkies,” a.k.a. what’s good for them or what they want. Moulitsas's earlier remarks indicate that here, he would have disagreed with Jurkowitz again, having explained only a few hours prior that in the new media sources and ideas would gain legitimacy from their level of acceptance by the online blogging community.
In the roundtable discussion that followed, moderated by R.D. Sahl, panelists such as Peter Mancusi, the executive vice president of Weber Shandwick, (a PR firm) added to the spectrum of expert opinions.
Mancusi, also contrary to Moulitsas, said that gatekeeping by the mainstream media is as powerful today as it ever was. Speaking of his work as a consultant to large companies and firms he testified that when a scandal breaks, “they aren’t worried about blog coverage…they want to know what the New York Times had to say.”
Some panelists expressed opinions that seem to represent a hybrid between those conveyed by Moulitsas and Jurkowitz. One such panelist was Ellen Hume, director of UMass Boston’s center for Media and Society. She suggest retaining news which is based on factual information and which has been checked for accuracy. But she suggested that might be surrounded by blogs, which are free to discuss unconfirmed rumors, express opinions (fact-based or otherwise) and have the general freedom to raise thought-provoking questions which might well enhance the reading experience.
Increased popularity of blogs has also raised the question of accountability, and whether or not these bloggers "count" as journalists, or should be protected under such legislation as the Shield Laws.
Hume’s closing remark was that “good journalists have to be willing to be unpopular” and she cited the failure of mainstream media to question the motives for the war in Iraq (i.e. WMDs) early on as a perfect example of “a dark period in media history” in which journalists failed to sacrifice popularity for truth. Jurkowitz added that the War in Iraq has raised difficult new political challenges as well, speculating that many Democrats didn’t speak out earlier because “they were being asked to prove a negative.”