News Sources and Journalist/Source Interaction
Summary and Keywords
The relationship between journalists and their sources is central to journalism practice. It is a relationship based on a power struggle over the presentation of information to the public. The nature of that relationship continues to change in response to cultural, social, political, and technological circumstances. Historically, the relationship between journalists and sources has been predominantly characterized as interdependent, oscillating between cooperation and conflict over the control of information. However, the arrival of digital publishing platforms has significantly disrupted this mutually dependent exchange. It has blurred the boundaries between the two roles and released sources from their traditional reliance on journalists to disseminate their messages to citizens. Using digital platforms, sources have the option to bypass the traditional media and communicate directly with the public if it meets their strategic communication goals. Depending on whether the source is trying to reach a specific audience via social media or a wider audience via mass media, he or she can “opt-in” or “opt-out” of a traditional journalist-source relationship. The shift in power between reporters and sources poses a challenge to the authority and control of journalists who have lost their stranglehold over the means of publication. This change points to issues of accountability and scrutiny and raises questions about the ongoing relevance of journalism’s “fourth estate” role in democracy.
The relationship between journalists and their sources lies at the heart of journalism practice. Journalists rely on sources to find out information and construct stories. Put simply, without sources there would be no journalism.
As the name implies, a “source” in journalism refers to a source of information from which the reporter garners material to write a story. That includes documentary sources such as written reports, social media, and data dumps via websites such as WikiLeaks. It also includes individuals such as eyewitnesses to events, whistle-blowers, civic officials, police, politicians, business leaders, community and advocacy groups, and the communications professionals who represent them.
The relationship between the reporter and source is not static. It changes in response to the cultural, social, political, and economic environment. Significantly, it also changes in response to developments in communication technology.
In the age of mass media, the distinction between journalist and source was relatively straightforward. At its most basic, the source supplied the information, and the journalist filtered and verified it and then facilitated its publication to the audience via his or her news organization. However, the arrival of digital media has seen that clear distinction between reporter and source all but dissolve. Journalists are no longer the sole primary “gatekeepers” of new information. In a hybrid media system (Chadwick, 2017) where older and newer media forms coexist, intersect, and interact, anyone with access to the Internet, including politicians, companies, NGOs, and the audience can create, curate, and publish information. In doing so, relationships between actors and the hybrid system continue to evolve as the “create, tap, or steer information flows in ways that suit their goals” and in the process “modify, enable, or disable the agency of others” (Chadwick, 2017, p. 4).
As the review of literature in this article reveals, the use of these digital platforms by growing numbers of information providers is indeed modifying, enabling, and disabling journalists’ ability to perform their normative role as democratic watchdog. On the one hand, the rise of digital media is enhancing journalism practice. On the other hand, it is undermining the economic viability of journalism and challenging journalism’s traditional control over the flow of information to the public.
In response to these changes, the dynamic between journalists and sources is in a state of flux. While the traditional journalist-source relationship still exists, it has become an optional relationship whereby sources can either “opt-in” or “opt-out” depending on the audience they need to reach. Via discussion of key literature, this article provides an overview of the history of the reporter-source relationship in the age of mass media. It then examines the impact of the rise of digital media on journalist-source relations, followed by critical reflections on the changing nature of this pivotal relationship and future directions for research.
Journalist-Source Relations in the Age of Mass Media
The relationship between journalists and sources in the age of mass media has been the subject of a large body of research across a range of communication disciplines, including journalism, public relations, and political communication. Much of the relevant literature falls into two broad categories: (1) the power dynamics in reporter-source relations and (2) the use of sources in journalism practice. Naturally, there is overlap between these artificial divisions, but for organizational purposes these broad headings have been adopted here.
The Power Dynamics in Reporter-Source Relations
At its core the relationship between reporters and sources is based on a struggle for power over the presentation of information. The nature of that struggle fluctuates in response to changing circumstances (Berkowitz, 2009; Broersma, Den Herder, & Schohaus, 2013; Carlson, 2009). Depending on the story; the source; and the wider cultural, social, political, and economic context, the power dynamic between a journalist and source can range from being a straightforward exchange of information at one end of the spectrum to a heated battle at the other.
In the context of Western democracy, the power struggle represents a contest of interests between the journalist who is tasked to represent the public interest by scrutinizing authority; and sources who seek to advocate personal, commercial, or political interests and influence public opinion through the media.
Naturally, this dichotomous portrayal of the relationship is an oversimplification of a complicated interaction in which journalist and source can both be acting in the public interest as well as be motivated by self and other interests. This binary characterization is also not necessarily representative of the power dynamic between journalists and sources in non-Western and non-democratic systems. In countries where journalists place less emphasis on the dominant Western norms of “objectivity,” independence, and scrutiny, the relationship between journalists and official sources is less adversarial.
In many parts of the world, journalists face obstacles to practicing autonomous reporting for a wide range of cultural, political, and economic reasons (Waisbord, 2013). Studies of different journalism cultures have found a tendency in non-Western liberal countries to “support official policies and convey a positive image of political and business leadership” (Obijiofor & Hanusch, 2011, p. 50). This less-critical stance can be due to a variety of factors. For instance, in authoritarian countries where the media is controlled by the government, journalists can face issues of censorship and threat of persecution if they challenge the official narrative. In some Asian countries, a cultural deference to those in authority might limit the degree of criticism from the media. In developing nations, a desire on the part of news organizations to encourage national economic and social growth might result in supportive coverage of business and government activity. In response, these wider cultural, social, political, and economic factors will necessarily impact on the way reporters in these countries interact with their sources.
However, in Western liberal democracies, the potential for conflict between the two actors was heightened in the mass media age because of the dependence of sources on journalists to get their message out to the public. Prior to the Internet, journalists and their news organizations largely determined what news made its way onto people’s TV screens and into the pages of the newspaper. In response to these conditions, adversarial portrayals of the relationship dominated.
This friction between reporters and sources is acutely observed in research about journalists’ relationships with official sources, such as politicians. It is a tension that stems from journalism’s normative role as a democratic “watchdog” tasked to hold power to account, while elected officials try to maintain control over of their message and sway public opinion in their favor. It is a high-stakes relationship that can determine the outcome of elections.
Early studies described a tense relationship between the two actors as a “mixture of conflict and cooperation” with reporters and their official sources being at once “allies and adversaries” (Sigal, 1973, p. 85). This fluctuation in power between journalists and their sources was famously characterized by Gans (1979) in his study of newsroom practices as both a “dance” and a “tug of war.” The dance metaphor evocatively captured the maneuvering between two strategic partners, in which Gans argued the official source more often took the lead. However, the image of a “tug of war” portrayed a more combative side to the relationship as the reporter and source struggled over who got to set the agenda.
Gans’s early dance metaphor strongly influenced research into the relationship, which has since been variously described as a “danse macabre” (Ross, 2010) and even a “tense tango” (Sanders, 2009). The constantly changing nature of this tension led Strömbäck and Nord (2006) to ask, “who is leading the tango?” The answer to that question lies in the context of the negotiation.
In their seminal essay into the relationship between the press and politicians, Blumler and Gurevitch (1981, p. 476) described the two actors as being interdependent, meaning that they were both “mutually dependent” and “mutually adaptive,” in their pursuit of their different yet overlapping goals. This conception of the relationship as interdependent or “symbiotic” features strongly in the literature. It conveys the reflexive nature of this strategic relationship as the journalist and source respond to a range of external and internal contextual factors in the process of constructing the news.
For instance, Brants and Voltmer (2011) listed a range of influences that can have an impact on the level of tension between the two actors, including the issue at hand, the potential damage to the authority or credibility of either side, public opinion, changing communication technologies, and the cultural and political context of the communication. Depending on the circumstances and the amount of power, either actor is able to exert changes. This can see the tension between politicians and reporters shifting “between complicity and open power struggle” (Brants & Voltmer, 2011, p. 4).
For instance, it is common for a newly elected government to experience a “honeymoon” period when it is first elected to office. However, the longer the government is in power, the tension between it and the media often rises as politicians make mistakes and the scrutiny from journalists increases.
The timing of the negotiation over a story can also influence who is in the lead. Eriksson and Östman (2013) argued the politician has a greater opportunity to influence events early on in the negotiation. While the journalist is looking for a story, the source can offer ideas. This discovery or “interactional” stage provides an opportunity for more cooperation between the two actors. However, once the reporter decides on the story, the power resides with them as he or she makes selective decisions about the framing and construction of the story.
One particularly contentious area of negotiation relates to what are called “anonymous sources.” Journalists refer to sources as “anonymous” when they use information given to them on the understanding that the source’s identity will not be revealed. This arrangement can pose difficulty for both the reporter and the public. The journalist must assess the value of the information against the need to provide the source with protection. Once such an agreement is entered into, the journalist is bound by a code of ethics not to reveal the identity of a confidential source. In the case of a whistle-blower or vulnerable person, the decision might be relatively straightforward. However, “leaks” and “off-the-record” briefings from politicians and other official sources can raise concerns of manipulation by taking advantage of the journalist’s ethical obligation to provide them with anonymity. In addition, if the public cannot identify the source of the information, then it is difficult for them to judge the credibility of claims. This has raised concerns about the use of anonymous sources on the public’s perceptions of trust in the news media.
This changing power dynamic is not peculiar to the relationship between reporters and politicians. It is evident in interactions between journalists and public relations practitioners as well. Work on journalist-source relations by Ericson, Baranek, and Chan (1989) described the relationship as one of “negotiating control” over knowledge, or information, and the way it is presented. Ericson et al. (1989, p. 2) called this negotiation the “knowledge/power dialectic,” which they saw as a tug of war over ongoing issues of “secrecy, confidence, censorship and publicity.” As to which of the two actors manages to take control at any given time, it is influenced by cultural, personal, professional, and institutional factors “that are played out in the eternal dance of secrecy and revelation characterising knowledge/power relations” (Ericson et al., 1989, p. 2).
The power of PR sources to influence the news agenda has been increasing and raising alarm. Since the 1980s, massive growth in the number of PR professionals or “spin-doctors” has occurred at the same time as the news industry began retracting. By 2008 the number of PR workers outstripped journalists 3 to 1 in the United States (McChesney & Nichols, 2011). The growth in PR led to an increase in “information subsidies” (Gandy, 1982) such as press releases and staged events influencing the news cycle. Studies reveal anywhere between 50 to 90% of news coverage in different jurisdictions has been generated from PR information subsidies (Macnamara, 2014, p. 9).
Journalists’ reliance on PR materials has been exacerbated by the demands of the 24-hour digital news cycle and major cuts to reporting staff. As traditional news organizations grapple to supply enough news with fewer resources, PR firms are experiencing increasing success in placing stories in the form of “editorial subsidies” (Jackson & Moloney, 2016). This “copy-ready” PR content is often written by former journalists in the style of news stories and is regularly reproduced verbatim by news organizations. It is a situation lamented by critical PR scholars who argue the increasing influence of PR on the news agenda is detrimental to democracy (Macnamara, 2014; Moloney, Jackson, & McQueen, 2013).
The power dynamic between journalists and PR sources is also reflected in scholarship about the attitudes of the two actors toward each other. This research primarily features in the public relations literature and points to historical animosity between journalists and public relations professionals. The discord stems from the use of propagandistic practices by the early PR practitioners at the time of the First World War (Schudson, 2001). This association with propaganda led journalists to perceive PR practitioners in a negative light, and these perceptions have endured.
Early research conducted by Aronoff (1975) into journalists’ attitudes toward PR professionals found reporters’ perceptions to be overwhelmingly critical. More recent surveys show that public relations continues to be portrayed in the media as “damage control, publicity, an attempt to hide or disguise the truth” (White & Park, 2010, p. 319) with journalists’ antipathy toward PR ranging from “love-hate” to “hate-hate” (Moloney, 2006, p. 24).
In contrast to this history of antagonism, there is a body of research that points to public relations professionals and journalists sharing similar news values (Kopenhaver, 1985), skills, and practices (Carey, 1969). The commonality between the two roles is reflected in the ongoing movement of communication professionals between journalism and PR—from reporter to source.
Routines and Practices
Another significant body of research focuses on the way journalists select sources as part of their daily routines and practices. Gaye Tuchman’s (1978) famous study of how news is made found that having good sources simply “enables reporters to do their jobs adequately” (p. 72). In choosing which sources to use in a story, journalists engage in a process of socially constructing reality through the selective portrayal of events.
This selection process is an expression of the journalist’s power as a “gatekeeper” of information who determines what story to tell, who to interview, what to include, and what to exclude. These decisions are important because they shape the information received by the public. These selections also reflect the impact of the constraints and resources of daily journalism on the shaping or “framing” of a story. Those constraints relate to, but are by no means limited to, considerations such as the availability of a source, time, budget, the personal biases of the reporter, the partisanship of the proprietor, the target audience, the news values of the publication, and the list goes on. Each of these factors will influence the selections made by a reporter about what sources of information to include or exclude in a story.
In addition to these influences emanating from the process and routines of traditional reporting, journalists also make decisions based on assessments of the reliability, credibility, or “trustworthiness” of a source and their information (Manninen, 2017).
The issue of source credibility is fundamental to journalism practice and central to journalist-source relations. The basic tenets of journalism require a reporter to access reliable sources of information for their stories.
Tuchman (1978) described the use of sources as part of the “web facticity” through which journalists gather and verify information. Without reliable or credible sources, a reporter cannot trust that the information provided is accurate and therefore is unable to present a version of events to the community that upholds the ideal of journalistic “truth.” As Jacquette (2010, p. 216) asserted: “Truth is the gold standard by which journalists are judged.” Just as a journalist’s reputation can rest on the credibility of his or her sources, a source can also gain credibility when used in a story.
While questions of truth are deeply contested and have occupied philosophers for centuries, it is central to journalism’s mission and pursued through the practice of “objectivity” in reporting. It must be said that while the concept of “objectivity” in journalism has been deeply contested and almost universally rejected among journalism scholars, there remains a professional commitment on the part of journalism practitioners to strive for fairness and independence in reporting, ideals that remain enshrined in contemporary journalism codes of ethics.
Traditionally, the concept of “objectivity” emerged to describe a quasi-scientific practice through which the journalist distanced him or herself from the story and its sources, in order to provide an independent account of events (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2014). The establishment of “truth” is then meant to occur via a process of triangulation through which the journalist cross-checks the information with a variety of sources to establish its veracity before a story is published. However, numerous studies have shown that the level of verification undertaken by reporters varies significantly depending on the circumstances. In their study of Canadian journalists, Shapiro, Brin, Bédard-Brûlé, and Mychajlowycz (2013, p. 675) found “most interviewees expressed passionate support for the norm of verification but described a range of pragmatic compromises when selecting various types of facts for, and when conducting, verification.” Instead, journalists tend to surround themselves with a pool of sources they deem reliable and can draw upon at short notice.
As in any relationship, credibility assessments in journalist-source relations will be made over time based on the actors’ previous treatment of each other. The source’s trust will be influenced by the journalist’s treatment of information previously provided to them, for instance, if it was reported fairly and ethically. The journalist’s trust assessment of the source will be based on the veracity and currency of the information provided. In the end, no matter how trustworthy the journalist or source is deemed to be, there is likely to be a degree of skepticism in the assessment based on an understanding of the communicative expectations between the two actors (Brown, 2011). On the one hand, a journalist’s expectations are based on an understanding that the source is likely to offer partial information that presents his or her interests in the most favorable light. On the other hand, the source understands that the journalist will also be selective in the information he or she ultimately uses to frame the story. These communicative expectations are part of the mutually dependent and mutually adaptive dynamic at the heart of this traditional working relationship.
In a deadline-driven and often resource-poor environment, journalists will regularly turn to the sources they trust to provide quick, interesting, and reliable information. This practice has led to concerns about traditional mainstream news coverage being dominated by “elite” sources such as politicians, elected officials, and business leaders (Reich, 2011). As will be discussed in the next section, the arrival of digital media platforms has helped remedy this situation by enabling a multitude of diverse voices to be heard without relying on the mainstream news media.
Journalist-Source Relations in the Digital Age
As mentioned in the introduction to this article, the rise of digital media has significantly disrupted the journalist-source relationship. No longer are sources solely dependent on journalists and news organizations to spread their message to a wide audience. Those former sources with access to the Internet are free to publish their own stories via an expanding range of online platforms including websites, blogs, and social media. Though it must be said, despite the ubiquity of the Internet, there remains a digital divide between those with access to the Internet and those without (Norris, 2001).
Depending on the audience the source wishes to reach, whether mainstream or niche, the source can “opt-in” or “opt-out” of a more traditional relationship with journalists. Sources can choose to bypass reporters and publish the information online themselves. Alternatively, they can elect to deal with a journalist from a traditional news organization in an attempt to gain access to a wider audience. Rather than mark an end to traditional journalist-source relations, this ability to publish independently and “opt-out” of a relationship with journalists simply further complicates the ongoing fluctuations in power between reporters and sources in a hybrid media system.
Bypassing the News Media
The ability for sources, such as politicians, to circumvent the news media is variously theorized in the political communication literature as “direct-representation” (Coleman, 2005); “direct communication” (Vaccari & Valeriani, 2015); “disintermediation” (Steiner, 2009); or the “one-step-flow” of communication (Bennett & Manheim, 2006).
This ability to avoid the journalistic gatekeeper is facilitated by the “online opportunity structures” of social media (Engesser, Fawzi, & Larsson, 2017, p. 4), which allow both the source and the audience to “evade institutional structures and processes” (Coleman & Freelon, 2015, p. 4). It does this by facilitating the source to publish straight to citizens via digital and social media platforms. It also allows citizens to access information directly from an increasing number of sources. This direct communication strategy via social media is favored by populist politicians who use it avoid the filter of journalists and “uncontestedly articulate their ideology and spread their messages” (Engesser, Fawzi, & Larsson, 2017, p. 1). In the context of politics, Broersma and Graham (2016) argued this ability to bypass the news media is fundamentally shifting the power relationship between journalists, politicians, and the audience.
However, this approach is not only being adopted by populist politicians. It is being widely used by information sources generally who wish to publish content straight to audiences via digital platforms. Those new content producers have become both rivals to traditional journalism and a new source of information for reporters to access for their stories. Rather than call a press conference to make an announcement, politicians, NGOs, and companies are increasingly publishing the information to Facebook or Twitter, from which the news media then report. President Donald Trump has been particularly successful in using Twitter to broadcast policy and set the media’s agenda, as are growing numbers of other politicians (Skogerbø, Bruns, Quodling, & Ingebretsen, 2016).
The audience for this type of direct communication from politicians has also grown. For example, between September 2015 and September 2017, the number of Twitter followers for the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn rose from 122 thousand to more than 1.5 million. In the same period, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s following on Facebook rose from 1.4 million to 2.5 million. Most conspicuously, the number of Twitter users following US President Donald Trump jumped from 4 million to 40 million in the same time frame.
In Norway, a Gallup poll of 1,057 adults aged 18+ in 2014 (Kalsnes, Larsson, & Enli, 2017) found a big increase in followers from 15% in 2011 to 30%, or 1.46 million, three years later. Quantitative data of six countries (United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Ireland, Spain, and Germany) from the 2017 Reuters Institute Digital News Report (Newman, Fletcher, Kalogeropoulos, Levy, & Nielsen, 2017), revealed significant numbers of news consumers were also following politicians’ social media feeds. The highest was in the United States with 54% and the lowest was in Germany with 25%. The data revealed the majority of those who followed politicians in these six countries were more likely to have a high interest in news and consume five or more sources of news in comparison to those who did not follow. However, across the six countries, the top reason selected for following was a preference to hear directly from the politician or party instead of having the information filtered by others, namely the news media. Other motivations selected by the followers of politicians on social media highlighted perceptions of deficiency in news media coverage of politics around truth, fairness, and a wish for more detailed coverage.
This data about members of the public who follow politcians on social media points to a desire from these engaged citizens to have greater control over the political news and information they consume. They want to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth rather than rely solely on an edited version of events by the news media. This desire for direct access is helping to drive the shift in the relationship between journalists and politicians, removing the news media’s stranglehold on what audiences consume and what politicians can publish. Just as politicians and other former sources can opt-in or out of a relationship with the mainstream news media, so can the audience.
Social Media Sources
Social media sources are sources of information that journalists access via social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Journalists are increasingly incorporating tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram photos, and YouTube videos from individuals and organizations in their mainstream news coverage.
Much of the journalism studies scholarship on social media has focused on the way journalists have adopted social media to enhance the work of journalism. On the whole, journalism practitioners indicate they tend to view social media favorably. Studies show that reporters find it useful for conducting research; finding, monitoring, and breaking stories; developing sources; staying up to date with events; and promoting news stories among their audiences (Weaver & Willnat, 2016).
For particular beats, such as political reporting, the use of social media has become integral for keeping abreast of developments as they unfold as well as monitoring commentary and reaction from third parties. So much so, that journalists describe the way “political tweets have shaped their coverage in terms of the events they cover, the sources they interview, the quotes they use, and the background information they rely on to decide how to cover an issue” (Parmelee, 2014, p. 434).
While some argue the use of Twitter, particularly in political reporting, has only served to reinforce the dominant voices of elite actors (Brands, Graham, & Broersma, 2018). Others have found the use of social media has exposed journalists to a wider pool of sources and increased the diversity of voices in their stories (Hermida, 2010).
Many of those new sources are citizens. The ability of the public to use mobile phones to provide eyewitness accounts of events has been heralded for facilitating a greater diversity of voices in the news and thereby challenging the dominance of elite perspectives. This type of reporting is commonly called “citizen journalism,” which Rosen (2006) usefully defined as: “When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.”
This style of reporting was clearly displayed during social uprisings, such as the Arab Spring, when protestors in Tunisia and Egypt risked their lives to publish video, photos, and personal testimony about the political demonstrations (Hermida, Lewis, & Zamith, 2014). Eyewitnesses to accidents and natural disasters also regularly assume this reporting role by documenting the crises with their mobile phones and then publishing via social media.
While there has been some reluctance by journalists and editors to incorporate citizen journalism or User Generated Content (UGC) in mainstream news reporting, it is an increasing trend (Bergström, 2010; De Keyser, Raeymaeckers, & Paulussen, 2011). This reluctance highlights an ongoing preference by the mainstream news media to privilege elite sources, which are deemed more credible and easier to verify.
One of the key challenges in using social media sources relates to testing their credibility. In fast-moving situations where journalists are relying on crowdsourced information, tensions can arise for the reporter between being first with news and being correct.
To establish the veracity of a digital source, journalists are required to employ a new range of verification techniques, such as geo-location and visual identification of landmarks (Godler & Reich, 2017; Schifferes et al., 2014). Despite the use of such fact-checking processes, false information or “fake news” is still mistakenly published online and can go viral. For example, in 2011, hoax photographs claiming to show the dead body of Osama Bin Laden were circulated widely on social media and then published by the mainstream press. In 2012, an analysis of photos taken during Hurricane Sandy found a large proportion of the pictures were fake and had been given legitimacy by being re-posted or shared by mainstream news outlets (Schifferes et al., 2014). More dangerously, the “Pizzagate” scandal in 2016 led to an armed civilian spraying bullets inside a Washington-based pizza parlor in response to baseless rumors about the existence of a child pornography ring on the premises. The criminal ring was allegedly linked to a member of Hilary Clinton’s election campaign staff during the 2016 presidential race. Revelations of Russian involvement in spreading “fake news” during the 2016 US election have highlighted the serious threat that organized disinformation operations pose—not just to journalism—but to democracy and the stability of political systems.
Despite heated public debate about the presence of “fake news,” there is no fixed definition of what it actually means. Discussion of fake news include references to satire, poor journalism, misinformation, propaganda, advertising, and hoaxes. Ultimately, determining whether something is “fake news” depends on the “facticity” of the information and the “intention” of the source (Tandoc, Lim, & Ling, 2017, p. 11). That means the extent to which it was based on verifiable information and whether the provider of the information intended to deliberately mislead. Whether it is “fake news” or not, the proliferation of unverified information sources raises increasingly urgent questions about the nature of news and the changing relationship between journalists, sources, and the audiences.
The New Gatekeepers
Through the normative lens of traditional journalism, the answer to the question “what is news?” appears simple: News is information about events that is produced by the news media. From the perspective of the audience, that question is increasingly hard to answer. In a “high choice” (Van Aelst et al., 2017) media environment “news” might mean traditional reportage or it could refer to something that is “news to me” (Nielsen, 2016). The latter might include Facebook posts from friends and family on a user’s “News Feed” or information from an advocacy group, or the latest basketball score. As Facebook’s vice president of product, Adam Mosseri (2017) explained, “News Feed” provides a broad range of “informative content” in which traditional “news” reportage “is a critical piece . . . but it is not the only critical piece.” This diverse range of “informative content” is being produced by a growing variety of “primary gatekeepers” (Nielsen, 2016) who were formerly “sources” and now rival the role of journalists as traditional gatekeepers in their ability to publish directly to citizens.
Gatekeeping theory developed in the age of mass media to explain how journalists and editors selectively determined what is and what is not worthy of inclusion in the news. As Shoemaker and Vos (2009, p. 1) described it: “Gatekeeping is the process of culling and crafting countless bits of information into the limited number of messages that reach people each day.” However, in the context of a hybrid media system, where the democratization of online content production has greatly diminished the news media’s traditional control over the flow of information, new gatekeepers have emerged.
Nielsen (2016) identified two broad types of gatekeeper: primary and secondary gatekeepers. Primary gatekeepers represent journalists and news editors who perform traditional functions of gathering, filtering, and publishing information and “decide what . . . we commonly understand as ‘news’” (p. 82). This category can also include nontraditional journalism content producers such as politicians, NGOs, businesses, and the public. In contrast, secondary gatekeepers “filter already available news content” (p. 82). What this contemporary gatekeeping framework describes is the way in which journalists and sources can switch roles by either creating new content as primary gatekeepers or curate, edit, and further publish the other’s content and act as secondary gatekeepers.
As Chadwick (2017) explains, in this hybrid media system actors are involved in “complex and ever-evolving relationships based upon adaptation and interdependence and simultaneous concentrations and diffusions of power.” Importantly, he says, the shape of that relationship is determined by the strategic goals of the actors that might “modify, enable, or disable the agency of others” (p. 4). In response, this article argues, the publishing of content by individuals, companies, politicians, and NGOS directly to the public via digital platforms has significantly modified the agency of these former sources—turned primary gatekeepers. As a result, this shift has significantly altered the power dynamic between journalists and sources.
Opting In or Out
Many of those new information sources or “primary gatekeepers” will be individuals and companies who were once reliant on the mainstream press but can now communicate directly to the public if it meets their needs. Depending on the audience they wish to reach, they might seek to publish solely via social media. Alternatively, they might desire coverage from mainstream news outlets to reach a wider audience that includes people who rely on traditional media to access information. It is a strategic decision and one that determines whether the source needs to foster and maintain relationships with journalists in the mainstream media or not (See Table 1).
Table 1. Opting in or out
“OPT-IN” to Journalist-Source Relationship
“OPT-OUT” of Journalist-Source Relationship
Provides information to journalist
Journalist constructs story
Source creates own content
News outlet publishes story to audience
Source publishes directly to target audience via social media
It must be said that sources have always had the ability to choose which journalists they develop working relationships with, but they have never had the freedom to opt-out of the mainstream news environment entirely and publish their message unfiltered to a large audience.
This choice is reflected in emerging research into the strategic cross-platform use of digital and mass media by politicians and other primary gatekeepers. For example, research by Kreiss, Lawrence, and McGregor (2017) revealed the motivations of politicians and their media advisers in selecting particular social media platforms in the context of an election. Interviews with US campaign professionals showed those decisions were based on considerations such as the nature of the candidate, the audience, the technical abilities and style of the platform, and the timing in relation to the goals of the campaign. The interviewees explained that each social media platform offered different advantages. For instance, Twitter was seen by the communications campaign staff to be best for reaching journalists, political actors, and very engaged partisan citizens. So it was ideal for the release of statements that would get picked up quickly by the news media. In contrast, Snapchat and Instagram have a younger audience and were considered best for unofficial information or behind-the-scenes photos that revealed life on the campaign trail. Facebook, has the broadest audience across all age groups which made it the “800-pound gorilla of social platforms” (Kreiss et al., 2017 p. 9).
Among Danish politicians, Skovsgaard and Van Dalen (2013) identified three main types of media user: those who mainly communicated through traditional mass media, politicians who focused on social media, and those who placed low emphasis on media. The study explained that mass media coverage was favored by incumbent politicians with an established profile and who used social media to set the agenda and leverage further mass media coverage. In contrast, opposition and low-profile candidates who tended to be ignored by the metropolitan news media relied on social media more heavily to raise their profile, in addition to targeting their local press. However, for politicians hoping to reach a broad section of the voting population, then “the mainstream media are still candidates’ first pick if they can get access” (p. 753).
These sentiments were echoed by politicians’ media advisers in Australia (Fisher, McCallum, & Marshall, 2018). Interviews revealed that minor parties can find it difficult to attract positive mainstream news coverage and therefore found social media to be the best alternative to reach their constituents. For one small political party, whose target audience predominantly consumed news via social media, bypassing journalists was an essential part of its communication strategy. When the political party did seek mainstream news coverage, it targeted smaller new-entrant media outlets that attracted a similar audience to the party’s voter base. However, those from major parties with large followings on social media had more choices. Depending on the topic and the section of the electorate the politician was trying to reach, social media might be the preferred medium. For big policy issues and announcements, interviewees said they still aimed for mass media coverage in order to reach a broad cross section of the electorate. This reflects the fact that in Australia and many other countries, the majority of news consumers still access news from mainstream sources, particularly from television (Newman et al., 2017).
The decision about which platform to publish on in the hybrid media system is a strategic decision informed by older and newer “media logics.” Chadwick (2017) defines media logics as the different “technologies, genres, norms, behaviors, and organizational forms” (p. 4) that relate to each digital and tradition media platform. For instance, in the mass media age, the importance of television led to politicians and other sources crafting their message, image, and workflows around the needs and format of television news, resulting in the 10-second soundbite and the staging of picture opportunities to ensure there were attractive visuals for the evening news. However, the logic required for social media is different. As Ernst, Engesser, Büchel, Blassnig, and Esser (2017, pp. 1349–1350) explained, mass media logic is built on “professional gatekeepers and a relatively passive audience,” whereas social media are built upon a “network logic” “of virality, which compels political actors to communicate primarily those messages that users like, comment on, promote, and share within their networks.” Therefore, in a hybrid media system, the decision to use traditional or digital platforms is informed by these different media logics.
In choosing one type of media platform over another, the source also determines if they need to invest in relationships with journalists from particular news outlets or whether they can reach their target audience without them. In the case of the latter, they might choose to opt-out of a relationship with mainstream reporters because they are better served by speaking directly to their audience via one of the new digital platforms. In a hybrid media environment, they are likely to continue using both to maximize their audience, but they no longer have to, and neither does the audience.
This article has provided an overview of interdisciplinary scholarship concerning the changing nature of the journalist-source relationship from the mass media age through to the present “high choice” hybrid media environment where traditional and newer digital media forms coexist. It is a shift from source dependence on mainstream media for publication to the option of sources autonomously publishing information via digital platforms straight to the public. Depending on the goals of the source, this shift offers them the liberty to “opt-in” or to “opt-out” of relationships with traditional journalists if it suits their strategic needs. Fifty years ago, such freedom for sources was unthinkable as mainstream news media maintained its control over publishing. In contrast, digitization has led to rapid growth in the number of information sources directly communicating with citizens and enabled them to seek and consume a self-tailored online information diet.
For traditional news reporters, this new information environment offers both risks and benefits. On the one hand, the growing volume of digital content provides journalists with an ever-changing menu of fresh information to source stories from. On the other hand, the vast majority of this online information goes unscrutinized. Overwhelmed by the sheer volume, journalists are unable to test the veracity of the partisan information being published.
A new wave of critical journalism scholarship asks important questions about what these trends mean for the ongoing relevance of journalism and its normative claims to being a democratic watchdog in the digital age where the news media no longer have monopoly control (Peters & Broersma, 2017). This article shares this critical perspective and urges ongoing research into this rapidly changing relationship and its consequences for journalism, politics, and society in general. More hybrid media studies need to be conducted into the strategic publishing choices made by new primary gatekeepers and whether they are opting in or out of relationships with traditional journalists and why. Similarly, further research is needed into the changing information diets of citizens, the primary sources they are choosing, and what that tells us about the state of the news media.
Lastly, more qualitative research is required into journalist and source perceptions of the impact of disintermediation on their roles and credibility. As Carlson (2016) explained, there has been a reluctance on the part of many journalists and scholars, themselves often former practitioners, to face the implications of this significant shift in power away from reporters toward individual sources and the consumer. It is a discussion that urgently needs to be had.
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