The Role of Gatekeeping in Journalism

Photo by Filip Mishevski on Unsplash

The role of gatekeeping in journalism is important and necessary, but in application, it seems to have room for error in today’s society. As Gabrielle Tutheridge wrote for Medium, gatekeeping

“is the news selection and extraction of news, which then gets passed through a series of gates (the journalists), and gets transformed and ends up in the news. […] For an example, a journalist may decide to cover a story on New Zealand earthquakes, but will only extract parts of the news that are relevant and credible to be processed and supplied to the public, and then this becomes the news”.

Essentially, what this means is that gatekeeper journalists ensure that the news received by the public is relevant and reliable. While gatekeeping is crucial for filtering news and guaranteeing that the information being shared to the masses is legitimate and free of bias, it is important to take agenda setting into consideration. Agenda setting theory, developed by Max McCombs and Donald Shaw, suggests that the media tells audiences what to think, rather than presenting them with pure facts for them to form opinions upon (Communication Theory).

A topic’s importance is reinforced when media outlets repeatedly provide coverage on that specific news subject. The mere-exposure effect, sometimes referred to as the familiarity principle, is a psychological phenomenon where people develop a preference for things because they are familiar with them. This causes people to agree with or support certain causes that are consistently being reported on based on the frequency the topic is discussed.

This becomes an issue when we recognize that different media outlets, however credible, hold different political biases, values, and opinions. When gatekeepers exclusively and repeatedly push a certain news item through different media outlets that hold underlying biases, it makes the news less objective and neutral.

On September 17th, 2019, Time magazine published a photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing blackface during an event at the private school he worked at in 2001. Many news outlets covered the incident, with different opinions and takes on the situation. However, social media data from the Digital Democracy Project showed that the scandal was only briefly discussed in the news. The topic was dropped from the front pages a few days later and the discussion had died down among by the general public and journalists (The Star).

We can see here that the “gatekeepers” had deemed the situation unimportant and not as pressing as other topics. According to the agenda setting theory, this may have had an effect on the election results as voters may not have taken Trudeau’s actions into consideration since the story was so quickly dismissed by journalists. However, the coverage it received was presented to the public through different lenses based on the outlet reporting on it, which may also have swayed readers’ opinions on the matter.

The National Post and The Star both put out multiple articles on the incident and the overall tone and underlying political bias of these reports varied significantly between the two outlets. In this essay, I will explore the differences in the reporting of the story through the opinions of the journalists from two news organizations with opposing political biases.

The National Post posted multiple articles on the incident. According to the Media Bias Fact Check, a comprehensive database and resource centre that rates the political biases and reliability of media outlets, this news outlet has a right center bias. The database stated their reasoning for rating the National Post as slightly conservative in bias is due to their use of “loaded words” when reporting.

Simply put, journalists writing for the National Post are known to use phrases in their reports in ways that influence readers to view the story in a certain perspective. Additionally, they are owned by PostMedia, a Canadian media conglomerate that owns several other conservative media outlets. An analysis of their articles on the Trudeau incident shows an obvious right-leaning bias. I will examine the writing and tone of three different reports from the National Post to analyze the bias of this media outlet and the opinions being pushed.

One of the first articles on the incident posted by the National Post was titled “While Liberals forgive Trudeau for blackface images, some Canadians say he’s disingenuous” by Meagan Campbell on September 19th. The subheading of the story reads, “When I look at something like this, it makes me not want to see him leading one of the most multicultural countries in the world”, which is a quote used later in the article. Prior to reading the report, readers already get an idea of the author’s stance on Trudeau wearing blackface. The title and subheading suggest that Trudeau’s actions are not to be taken lightly and should dictate the way voters approach the upcoming election. Words with negative connotations are littered all over the article, specifically when describing the incident. Campbell states that,

“For some people, [Trudeau’s] apology is worthless. Anyika Mark, president of the Black Students’ Association at the University of Toronto, says she does not believe that Trudeau merely made a “mistake” but rather went out of his way to co-opt people’s identities for entertainment” (The National Post).

Although she is describing Mark’s thoughts on the event, Campbell’s reiteration of the notion that Trudeau’s actions stem from intentional and racist motivations, makes it difficult for readers to critically and objectively approach the story.

While Campbell’s entire piece focuses mainly on how the prime minister’s behaviour was intolerable and his apology insincere, she mentions two different people who were in support of and forgave Trudeau. The first being Bardish Chagger, a cabinet minister, who said she believed that his apology came from an honest place. The second person was Lenore Zann, a Liberal candidate in the riding of Cumberland-Colchester, who said she could tell Trudeau was humiliated by his past actions. However, Campbell makes the choice to end the article with the full quote from the subheading:

“There was no mistake. You have to sit down and get your face painted, have to go and get your costume,” says Mark. “When I look at something like this, it makes me not want to see him leading one of the most multicultural countries in the world. This is beyond irresponsible” (The National Post).

There is no personal statement or opinion from the author regarding the incident, but Campbell’s decision to finish her piece with a quote questioning and bashing Trudeau’s ability to lead as prime minister, makes her stance on the issue very clear. This article paints a picture of upset and angry citizens who feel betrayed by Trudeau’s past. Moreover, the title makes the false claim that all Liberals support him regardless, and panders to readers who don’t have a heavy left-leaning political bias.

The second article from the National Post is titled “All the world’s a stage: Blackface controversy shines light on Trudeau the actor” by Joseph Brean. Similar to the first piece, the subheading implies that the prime minister is incapable of being a leader: “All the world’s a stage: Blackface controversy shines light on Trudeau the actor” (The National Post). Unlike the first article, however, the author does not seem to hide his personal opinion on the incident. Brean opens by criticizing the prime minister, not only for wearing blackface, but his overall character:

“The slur has always been that Justin Trudeau is a drama teacher. Unfair though it may be

to actual drama teachers, the implication is that he is frivolous, juvenile, emotional, more

appearance than substance, and no more a real leader than the kid up on stage in tights and

a tunic is really Peter Pan . . . The events of this week have put that image under a revealing spotlight and summoned some ugly shadows” (The National Post).

While his opinion is obvious, it is interesting that the National Post filed this article under “news” as it is a blatantly subjective piece with a strong political bias. Brean explicitly states that he believes Trudeau is an untrustworthy, political actor and convinces readers of this by using this scandal to remind readers of past incidents where he was criticized by the public. He mentions that 20 years ago, Peter Scowen reviewed Trudeau’s eulogy for his father, and described it as a “treacly, over-acted embarrassment” and an untrustworthy, calculated “performance”. This article could almost be considered a slander piece as it is filled with criticisms of Trudeau’s character that isn’t necessarily backed up by factual evidence or proof, but rather the author’s own take on his actions.

Finally, the last article from the National Post was written by David Ljunggren and titled “Trudeau campaigns after blackface images deliver blow to polling numbers”. This article approaches the incident in a fairly objective way, offering the perspectives of both those in support of and against the prime minister with regards to the scandal. However, the right-leaning bias is shown through phrasing.

Take the following sentence for example, “Now the polls have shifted and the Liberals are looking particularly vulnerable in Ontario” (The National Post). Ljunggren chooses to use loaded words that imply that the Liberals are at risk of losing the election, which is not unfactual, but the word “vulnerable” connotes extreme weakness. This piece is arguably more neutral than the previous two, but the political bias is still subtly present.

The Star also posted multiple articles on the incident, but their stance was a little different. According to Media Bias Fact Check, the Toronto Star is a newspaper with a left-center bias. Their news reports often have a slight liberal bias, with focuses on stories that concern liberal causes, including the endorsement of Justin Trudeau.

Similar to the National Post, the Star utilizes loaded words and strategic phrasing to sway readers into perceiving a situation in a certain light. I will explore their political bias by analyzing the way three different journalists writing for the Star have reported on the photos of Trudeau wearing blackface.

The first article I will be examining is by Alex Boutilier, titled, “Trudeau’s blackface scandal quickly fell off public’s radar, social media data shows”. This is an interesting choice for a headline, as rather than addressing the events of the scandal, the article revolves around how quickly the public forgot and dismissed the incident. In a way, this piece implies that it is general consensus that Trudeau’s actions were forgiven and forgotten.

The article talks about the lack of discussion about the incident on social media, as proven by the Digital Democracy Project. Boutilier chose to include this excerpt from the report to support this point: “Non-Liberal candidates may have had stronger incentives to keep the story alive. However, like journalists and the general public, their tweets on the controversy also dwindled a few days after the story broke”.

This specific quote insinuates that the only people who wanted to continue the discussion on Trudeau’s scandal were non-liberals, but their attempts failed and the majority of the public had stopped talking about it altogether. Boutilier’s choice to write a news report on how un-newsworthy the topic is is very telling of what the Star’s political beliefs are.

The second news report I will be examining is an opinion piece by Phillip Howard, titled, “Trudeau in blackface is a symptom of Canada’s widespread anti-Black racism”. This article does critique Trudeau’s actions, but it also removes the blame from him, specifically. Howard says that there is the existence of a “widespread anti-Blackness”.

He almost defends Trudeau by saying that systemic anti-Black racism is what caused him to don the racist costumes multiple times: “he was assured his friends and colleagues would enjoy his shenanigans”. He displaces the blame from the prime minister and onto the general public. Howard asks readers to understand the problem as one that affects everyone and that we should be focusing on the issue as a whole, rather than point fingers. He addresses the anti-Blackness in educational institutions, stating that, “it recurs in educational settings, as it did with Trudeau”.

While Howard seems to shine a light on the prevalent issue of racism in our society, he also appears to victimize Trudeau in this incident, chalking it up to the result of systemic hatred.

The last article I will be analyzing from the Star is by Joan Bryden and is titled, “After blackface scandal, Trudeau shuns photo ops of trick or treating”. As I was reading it, I felt as though the article was a bit of a “non-story” in that it did not provide information on the scandal nor did it provide updates after the incident. Rather, it just discussed Trudeau’s previous halloween costumes and that Trudeau was advised to keep a low-profile following the incident.

Bryden points out that “Trudeau’s choice of Halloween costumes since becoming prime minister hasn’t generated particular controversy in the past” and goes on to list that he has dressed as Han Solo, Superman, and the pilot in the Little Prince. The political bias is harder to find in this story as it is an objective and neutral piece on Trudeau’s costumes, but after reading the whole article, it is evident that the report does not paint Trudeau in a negative light nor does it discuss the scandal at all. The author does not hold Trudeau responsible for his actions and practically dismisses the incident in general.

The political stances of both organizations are clear. The National Post is a right-leaning outlet that shows a Conservative bias in the pieces they publish. The Star is a left-leaning outlet with a Liberal bias that focuses on pushing stories that favour more progressive and democratic causes. Both news outlets utilize loaded language and focus on reporting on news that aligns with their political stances.

Gatekeeping and agenda setting played a huge part in the reporting of Trudeau’s scandal as it determined the length of the discussion (how long the story would be in the news for) and how readers would perceive the incident based on which organization they received their news from. According to the statistics, Trudeau’s blackface incident had fallen off the radar within the span of a few days. The story was most likely deemed irrelevant by the “gatekeepers” who wanted to push other, more pressing stories.

While most of the articles from the National Post criticized Trudeau, condemned his actions, and questioned his ability to lead as prime minister, the Star did the opposite. The Star focused on other aspects of the scandal, ultimately displacing the blame from the prime minister to the public, educational institutions, and an overall issue of wide-spread racism.

Going through articles from both organizations made it easier for me, as a reader, to form an opinion on the situation because I could understand the viewpoints from both ends of the political spectrum and it allowed me to decide where I stood. This, however, is a bit alarming as it means that people who are exclusively subscribed to one news outlet may only get their information with the same political bias.

Agenda setting is a practice that can misinform the public of what they should be concerned about and why. News should be presented to the public in an objective and neutral way. It is important, especially in a digital age where photo and video manipulation is prevalent, for the news we receive to be trustworthy, relevant, and objective. Newspapers should not have the power or control to form opinions for their readers as their job is to simply provide the public with reliable news, not tell them what to think about it.

Resources

“Agenda Setting Theory.” Communication Theory, 27 Oct. 2019, https://www.comm-

unicationtheory.org/agenda-setting-theory/.

Boutilier, Alex. “Trudeau’s Blackface Scandal Quickly Fell off Public’s Radar, Social Media Data

Shows.” The Star, 3 Oct. 2019, https://www.thestar.com/politics/federal/2019/10/03/

Trudeaus-blackface-scandal-quickly-fell-off-publics-radar-social-media-data-shows.html.

Brean, Joseph. “All the World’s a Stage: Blackface Controversy Shines Light on Trudeau the

Actor.” The National Post, 20 Sept. 2019, https://nationalpost.com/news/all- the-worlds

-a-stage-blackface-controversy-shines-light-on-trudeau-the-actor.

Bryden, Joan. “After Blackface Scandal, Trudeau Shuns Photo Ops of Trick or Treating.” The

Star, 31 Oct. 2019, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2019/10/31/after -blackface-scandal-trudeau-shuns-photo-ops-of-trick-or-treating.html.

Campbell, Meagan. “While Liberals Forgive Trudeau for Blackface Images, Some Canadians Say

He’s Disingenuous.” The National Post, 19 Sept. 2019, https://nationalpost.com/news/

While-liberals-forgive-trudeau-for-blackface-images-some-canadians-say-hes-

Disingenuous.

Howard, Phillip. “Trudeau in Blackface Is a Symptom of Canada’s Widespread Anti-Black

Racism.” The Star, https://www.thestar.com/opinion/2019/09/20/trudeau -in-blackface-is-a-symptom-of-canadas-widespread-anti-black-racism.html.

Ljunggren, David. “Trudeau Campaigns after Blackface Images Deliver Blow to Polling

Numbers.” The National Post, 22 Sept. 2019, https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/

election-2019/trudeau-campaigns-after-blackface-images-deliver-blow-to-polling-numbers.

“National Post.” Media Bias/Fact Check, https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/national-post/.

“Toronto Star.” Media Bias/Fact Check, https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/toronto-star/.

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Fiona Huynh

Academic pieces from my time as a Media and Digital Communications student at Western University.