A return to ‘Mr. Gates’: Photography and objectivity

A return to ‘Mr. Gates’: Photography and objectivity

Bissell, Kimberly L

Gatekeeping of photography is somewhat subjective and it is a chain of gatekeepers, not just one, that alters photo content.

Since David Manning White’s’ study of Mr. Gates, the notion of editorial content being monitored by gatekeepers has been addressed empirically for more than 40 years. Researchers from Gaye Tuchman2 to Herbert Gans3 have examined news as social constructions of reality. Other studies have examined the routines of news organizations and organizational constraints on decisionmaking.4 The examination of the news process as a social activity has allowed scholars to assess objectivity, influences on content and decision-making.’

This paper presents a case study of photographic decision-making at a single newspaper and presents results of a content analysis of this newspaper’s photographic content. This project examined decision-making at multiple gates, using the conceptualizations of the forces that facilitate or constrain each news item’s passage through those gates. 6

Theory – Photography and objectivity

One of the most important functions of news is its ability to generate images. Visual imagery now tells a story in a way never imagined decades ago. But time and technology have evoked changes in photojournalism, and these changes are often evident in news content. William Gamson and colleagues? suggest that photographs possess a power and a point of view based on the agencies or individuals that construct them. He asserts that photographic images are rarely neutral and suggests it is through the creation of an image that meaning is constructed. Tagg8 says that while a camera can be neutral in theory, once the various gatekeepers handle it, all hope of neutrality is lost. The suggestion, then, is that while photographs imitate the life they are representing, the photograph is also reconstructing the world. Photographs cannot take on the meaning of an entire event because they represent a slice of life; therefore, each photograph represents only a portion of reality. Roland Barthes9 says that through simple changes in lighting or camera angle, meaning can be imposed in photographic messages. Hall” suggests that through each photograph’s use of an expressive code, newspapers can inflect a different news angle toward a story.

Photographic gatekeeping

Through conceptualizations of Kurt Lewin,” White,”2 Pamela Shoemaker, 13 Shoemaker and Stephen Reese,”4 and Shoemaker, Martin Eichholz, Euyni Kim, and Brenda Wrigley,15 gatekeepers have been examined on a variety of levels at multiple news organizations. In its simplest conceptualization, gatekeeping is the process of winnowing down thousands of potential story ideas to the few that are transmitted by the news media.

Shoemaker and colleagues 16 suggest that through the winnowing down process, positive or negative forces facilitate the flow of items through the various gates. Shoemaker and colleagues further suggest that these forces can be identified on all levels of analysis. Three of the five levels of analysis” individual, routine, and organizational – are addressed in this study.

Individual, routine and organizational influences

Influences on content at the individual level range from the demographic makeup of journalists to journalists’ perceptions of readers’ expectations. Several studies have provided conclusive evidence that each journalist’s decision-making is shaped by influences at the individual level.”

In addition to forces that are generated by individual decision-makers,19 some influences on content are evident in the structure of the newsroom itself. Warren Breed” suggests that through the socialization of journalists in the newsroom, journalistic routines and organizational routines are instilled in cub reporters. Furthermore, Shoemaker and colleagues21 found stronger suggestions of routine-level influences rather than individual-level influences playing a larger role in decision-making in their study of individual and routine forces in gatekeeping. Through the work of Eric Abbott and L.T. Brassfield and Shoemaker and colleagues,22 the suggestion is that as journalists adapt to their work environment, they become socialized to the organization’s way of thinking. The “this is how we do things around here” mentality can cloud some journalist’s judgment, in some cases, influencing journalists to make decisions based on the routines of the organization.

At the organizational level, Gans23 reports that in news decisionmaking, larger organizational goals often outweigh individual journalist and routine-level influences. For example, C. Zoe Smith”‘ found in her study of the photo department at two Milwaukee newspapers that because of the constraints of the organization – both newspapers owned and operated by the same company – some photographic decisions were reflective of that single ownership. Furthermore, George Bailey and Larry Lichty2l report of the role of the organization during decision-making in their analysis of NBC News coverage of the Vietnam War. In this case, the executive producer made the decision to run a graphic video of the now-famous assassination of a Viet Cong prisoner, even though other reporters, editors, and producers were generally responsible for day-to-day news content. The suggestion, then, is that the forces or influences on content are multiple and may occur at many levels.

Gans wrote “journalists try hard to be objective, but neither they nor anyone can in the end proceed without values. Furthermore, reality judgments are never altogether divorced from values.”26 Each journalist who plays a role in decision-making brings to the table his or her perspectives, biases, beliefs, and ideology. Wilbur Schramm27 suggests that the longer the gatekeeping chain, the more likely the message transmitted does not resemble the message that started. In all kinds of news nowadays, the gatekeeping chain can be quite long. As news items pass from gate to gate, the various influences construct the news audiences see.

Research questions RQ1

At what levels are influences on content evident in photographic decision-making?


Is photographic content indicative of a single decision-maker’s biases?

Shoemaker and Reese” suggest that the newsmaking routines and organizational structure that are inherent in a newsroom will influence content to a degree. As each news item is interpreted, transmitted, and disseminated, individual gatekeepers contribute to changes in the news item’s content.


This paper presents a case study of one newspaper’s photographic content and presents findings from observations and interviews with photographic decision-makers. The mid-size newspaper in the Northeast at the time had 34 reporters, five full-time photographers, and about 15 people who served in some editorial capacity. News personnel were all white, about 65 percent male, and generally between 30 and 60 years old. The morning newspaper was published seven days a week, with Sunday circulation (101,000) almost double the weekday circulation.

A content analysis of the photographic content was conducted prior to conducting observations and interviews with newsroom personnel. The purpose of the content analysis was to get a general sense of the newspaper’s use of wire and local photographs, to get a sense of the types of photographs frequently run, and to get a sense of the demographic makeup of subjects in photographs.

A 30-day random sample 29 was obtained, and all photographic content in each newspaper issue was coded for the following information:

1. Percentage of wire and local photographs used in the newspaper

2. Percentage of photographs in content categories, i.e. sports, features, business, etc. 30

3. Gender, race and approximate age of subjects in all published photographs

4. Demographic makeup of subjects in each content area. i.e. the number of sports photographs with male subjects.

A second coder was used to establish intercoder reliability, and this coder examined 20 percent of the content. Intercoder reliability was .92 using Holsti’s formula. 31

In addition to examining the newspaper’s photographic content, observations and interviews were conducted with the photographic news staff during the last two weeks in May 1997. As wire editors made decisions about wire photographs, information about each photograph was recorded, and each editor was questioned about his/her reasons for rejecting or accepting each photograph. During the two weeks of observations and interviews, a real-time analysis of photo content was conducted. All photographs crossing the photo editor’s desk or the wire desk were examined. Coders kept a record of local and wire photographs accepted and rejected for publication.

The real-time analysis of photographic content included a day in the life of a photographic news item. Observations with decision-makers were conducted from an idea’s conception to the editorial meeting where decisions about photos were made. At this newspaper, several news personnel were responsible for creating photographic news: the news editor (who frequently gave assignments), the photographers, and the photo editors; all were observed and interviewed.31


In the sample of 30 representative days, wire photographs were used more frequently than local photographs – 224 wire photos and 208 local photos. As expected, wire photographs often served the purpose of accompanying state, national or international news stories. General news was a common category for wire and local photographs. Wire photographs were also frequently used in sports, and local photographs were frequently features or sports photographs. (see Table 1) Local photographs were also placed more frequently on the front page or on a section front than wire photographs. However, the front page of the sports section ran more wire than local photographs.

1996 Census Data” estimates indicate the county had 53 percent females and 47 percent males. While the county had slightly more females than males, the percentage of local and wire photographs of women was significantly lower. Of the 208 local photographs published in the 30-day sample, 129 of the photos featured males only (62 percent). (see Table 2) Of the 224 wire photographs published in the 30-day sample, 186 were of males only (83 percent). Local photographs featured more female subjects (30 percent) than wire photographs (12 percent), but the percentage of females in the published photographs dramatically lagged behind the percentage of females in the population. In the representation of race, local photographs of whites, African Americans, and other minorities paralleled census data of the county, and wire photographs were even more diverse. Twenty-two percent of all published wire photos were of nonwhites compared to 6 percent of local photographs.

Differences in the representation of age were also found when local and wire photographs were compared to census data. Analysis of the approximate age of subjects in local and wire photographs indicated that the percentage of photographs of children and the elderly were the most skewed when compared to census data. Children under 18 were overrepresented in local photographs (36 percent) when compared to census data (24 percent), but children under 18 were underrepresented in wire photographs (6 percent). Approximately 17 percent of the county was classified as 65 or older, yet only 1 percent of local photographs had subjects in this age bracket. While this demographic representation can not be used to generalize the newspaper’s content on a monthly or yearly basis, the data from the observations and interviews yielded clues on how these patterns appeared.

In addition to examining this newspaper’s photographic content over the course of four and one-half months, a real-time analysis was done of local and wire photographs received and used in a 14-day period.

In a 14-day period, 3,915 wire photographs were received from AP, UPI, or Reuters, and 125 wire photographs were used. Wire photographs published during this 14-day period and during the 30-day sample were most frequently used to illustrate political, sports, and general news stories. (see Table 3)

In keeping with White’s method of studying wire editors’ decisionmaking, photographic wire editors were observed for 14 days, when real-time analysis of photographic content was conducted. As wire editors made decisions about wire photographs for the next day, each was asked why the other photographs were being rejected. (see Table 4) While the reasons for rejection were not only diverse but also highly subjective among the three wire editors, some reasons were recorded consistently among the three such as lack of space. Wire editors said that lack of space meant the news item was not newsworthy enough to warrant bumping another photograph or a story.

While the overt reasons for accepting a photograph were often similar, each wire editor’s decision-making differed. One wire editor often made decisions based on her political preferences. “I’ll run any photograph that makes Newt Gingrich look like a lunatic,” she said. She also said that tragic images and images that reflected someone else’s grief were ones that caught the reader’s eye. “You can’t go wrong with refugee pictures, ” she said. She indicated that she liked graphic photographs that really caught the attention of the viewer. She said that although the newspaper backed off from graphic local images, she tended to run graphic images that were from AP. A second wire editor had a different philosophy.

“I won’t run dead people photographs,” he said. He indicated that he felt the readers were sensitive to these types of images, and he didn’t feel “disturbing our readers so early in the morning” was such a good idea. He said “dead people” photographs crossed the line and went too far in telling a story.

“Let the words say ‘dead’ – let the images tell another part of the story,” he said. This same wire editor still indicated an interest in using eyecatching images though. “This paper loves flames. If you get a good picture with flames, we will almost always go with it.” Clearly, each wire editor had a different opinion on the use of graphic images, and each wire editor indicated that selecting wire photographs for the next day’s paper depended a lot on personal opinion.

While the wire editors indicated that personal opinion was a part of decision-making, other news personnel said that other influences on news content were evident. According to the photo editor, the newspaper never rejected photographs from local photographers. “Photographs of poor quality might run small or on an inside page,” she said, “but our publisher says we don’t pay to have photographers on staff to not run their photographs.” In this sense, the publisher dictated photographic content.

The local photographic representation of race paralleled 1996 census data estimates, yet some news personnel said the use of nonwhite subjects was often to “appease the few who would complain.”

“This paper is not minority-oriented,” one photographer said. “The traditional views of the previous publisher were filtered down through the news room. This place points a lot of fingers, and the nonrepresentativeness starts from the top down.”

But, despite an underrepresentation of women and minorities in photographic content, the news editor said she thought the paper did well representing the newspaper’s audience. “We try to do the senior activities,” she said, “but we also try to grab the 20-to-30-year-old reader. I think the minority population is very small here so our lack of images of minorities is okay.”

One photographer said the representation of gender, race and age was often consciously made when stories were being covered. “I think about who is in my picture,” one photographer said. “I ask myself, do I have women? Do I have men? Am I getting any blacks in there? I believe that when I start thinking who I am getting and not getting, I am losing the essence of the event.”

Decision-makers admitted that individual opinions, routines in the newsroom, and pressure from the publisher all affected photographic content.


The first research question addressed the levels of influence on content. As the results indicated, influences on content were evident at the individual, the routine and the organizational level.

Individual influences

White” found in his study that “Mr. Gates”‘ decisions in news selections were quite subjective and determined very much on an individual basis. As the results from this study indicated, the process of photo selection was also quite subjective. Photographic gatekeepers at this newspaper made decisions based on political preferences, perceptions of audience expectations and personal opinion about explicitness. The wire editors were in complete control of wire content, and these three people had varying definitions of news. The photojournalists indicated they sometimes chose their subjects based on gender, race, or age. While this behavior may not deviate from the norm, the question is how often are these subjective, personal decisions made? As Tagg” suggests, each gatekeeper altered reality slightly by imposing on a neutral apparatus a point of view.

Routine and organizational influences

The routines of this newsroom dictated that all local photographs be published. Furthermore, the publisher’s perceptions of racial equity were filtered down through the newsroom, resulting in a staff that did not actively seek to equally represent gender, race, and age. While it is understood a newsroom doesn’t always operate as a democracy, the traditions and newsroom standards suggest that news is created and processed by objective journalists. However, as gatekeepers are influenced by personal opinions, norms of the newsroom, and organizational pressures, objectivity is, in some cases, lost.

Forces facilitating news flow

The news processors and news gatherers facilitated each news item’s passage from gate to gate. In some cases, this newspaper’s news editor, who made photographic assignments, weeded out potential news items she felt didn’t warrant a photograph. In other cases, the same news editor would delegate a local photograph to an inside page and run a wire photograph more prominently because she felt the wire photograph was better. The wire editors monitored gates but allowed news items to pass through each gate not based on traditions of newsworthiness or quality but rather by personal opinions about the photographic content. In many cases, photographs of cute children were deemed of higher news value than hard news. The degrees of subjectivity in the newsroom may be inherent in the process, yet the perceptions of photographic storytelling are that the images emulate truth or reality. What these observations and interviews have highlighted are the many layers of subjectivity that lie between a newspaper’s photographic content and reality. News personnel who were influenced by various internal and external forces were constructing the proverbial window on the world.

This thought addresses research question #2. While a single gatekeeper’s biases in decision-making were certainly evident, each published photograph seemed to be the product of chain of gatekeepers. In some cases, a single gatekeeper’s decision-making opened or shut the door on a photograph, but it was via the gatekeeping chain that so many minor decisions altered the content.

By the nature of the medium, the viewer’s social construction of reality is shaped from the first snap of the shutter. And, as Schramm’ suggests, the longer the gatekeeping chain, the more likely reality will be altered.

Since this is a case study, these findings are not generalizable, yet they may open the door to future research. Few studies have examined the way reality has been constructed photographically. This study’s primary limitation then is also a strength. Extensive observations and interviews combined with a quantitative component allowed for comparison between the two. The findings of one portion of the study are more greatly understood based on the findings from the other. The findings are also important when media effects are considered. Audience’s perceptions of the world – the crisis in Kosovo and the school shooting in Littleton, Colorado – are shaped in part by the images seen. Individual memories of historical events have been shaped via visual imagery. If the visuals misconstruct the world, the perceptions of the world become more skewed.

As F.P. Hoy says, “in many instances, the photograph is interpretive, in that it can also present a point of view – the photographer’s personal intellectual stance, opinion, or unique attitude toward the subject.”17

When any attempt is made for accurate representation of subjects in photographs, a decision is made to select in or out other subjects who may have also been a part of that reality. While this is certainly not a new concept in determining what becomes news, this thought illustrates how subjective the process really is. Each decision made concerning what becomes news photographically reflects one or maybe a few gatekeepers’ opinions about what is important and what the public needs to know. Each decision made reflects one of a series of gates a photograph goes through to become a part of news. And most importantly, each decision reflects some portion of reality that has been selected out. What this means, then, is that the transparent window on the world has now become a few people’s perceptions of reality.

Some degree of subjectivity is inherent in the process. But, based on the observed forces that facilitate the flow of news, the question is, are too many decisions based on opinion?

Future research should continue to examine photographic gatekeeping, the influences on photographic content, and the notions of objectivity in photographic news.


1. David Manning White, The Gatekeeper: A Case Study in the Selection of News. Journalism Quarterly, Fall 1950, pp. 383 – 390.

2. Gaye Tuchman, Objectivity as Strategic Ritual: An Examination of Newsmen’s Notions of Objectivity. American Journal of Sociology, 1977, No. 4. pp. 660-679.

3. Herbert J. Gans, Deciding What’s News. New York: Pantheon, 1979.

4. see Warren Breed, Social Control in the Newsroom: A Functional Analysis. Social Forces, May 1955, pp. 326-335.; Gans, op.cit.; David Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit, The American Journalist: A Portrait of tJ.S. News People and Their Work. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

5. Pamela J. Shoemaker and Stephen D. Reese, Mediating the Message: Theories of Influence on Mass Media Content. White Plains, New York: Longman Publishers, 1996.

6. Pamela J. Shoemaker, Gatekeeping. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1991.

7. William A. Gamson, D. Croteau, W. Hoynes, and T. Sasson, Media Images and the Social Construction of Reality. Annual Review of Sociology, 1992, Vol. 18. pp. 373393.

8. John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays in Photographies and Histories. London: Macmillan, 1988.

9. Roland Barthes, Myth Today. Mythologies. 1972.

10. Stuart Hall, The Determinants of News Photographs in Cohen and Young, eds., The Manufacture of News: Deviance, Social Problems and the Mass Media. London: Constable, 1982.

11. Kurt Lewin, Frontiers in Group Dynamic II; Channels of Group Life; Social Planning and Action Research. Human Relations, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 143-153.

12. White, op. cit.

13. Shoemaker, Gatekeeping, op. cit.

14. Shoemaker and Reese, op. cit.

15. Pamela J. Shoemaker, Martin Eichholz, Euyni Kim, and Brenda Wrigley, Individual and Routine Forces in Gatekeeping. Unpublished manuscript, 1999.

16. Shoemaker, Eichholz, et al., op. cit.

17. Shoemaker and Reese, op. cit.

18. Bass, op. cit.; G.L. Bleske, Ms. Gates Takes Over: An Updated Version of the 1949

Case Study. Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 1991, pp. 88-97; R.C. Flegel and Steve H. Chaffee, Influences of Editors, Readers, and Personal Opinions on Reporters. Journalism Quarterly, Winter 1971, pp. 645-651.

19. White, op cit.

20. Breed, op. cit.

21. Shoemaker et. al., op. cit.

22. Eric A. Abbott and L.T. Brassfield, Comparing Decisions on Releases by TV and Newspaper Gatekeepers. Journalism Quarterly, Winter 1989, pp. 853-856; Shoemaker et. al., op. cit.

23. Herbert J. Gans, Deciding What’s News. New York: Pantheon, 1979.

24. C. Zoe Smith, More Than Just Distance: A Study of the Photo Department at the Milwaukee Newspapers. Photo Mgr.

25. George Bailey and Larry Lichty, Rough Justice on a Saigon Street. Journalism Quarterly, Summer 1972, pp. 221-229.

26. Gans, op. cit.

27. Wilbur Schramm, The Gatekeeper: A memorandum, in W. Schramm, ed., Mass Communications. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949, pp. 175-177.

28. Shoemaker and Reese, op. cit.

29. The newspaper’s photographic content was analyzed from January 1, 1997 – May 16, 1997. Weeks of the month and days of the week were randomly sampled from January 1 to April 15, 1997 and a census of this newspaper’s photographic content was conducted from April 16 to May 15, 1997.

30. Each photograph was assigned one of the following content codes: crime, disaster/accident, political, human interest, international news (political, economic, war), national news (business, science and technology, education), sports, general local news, entertainment, or other. Content categories were devised based on the content categories used by the newspaper and by the wire services.

31. For complete coding instructions and coding sheets, please e-mail the author at klbissel@siu.edu.

32. Some of the interview questions include: When deciding which photograph to publish, what influences you most? Do you ever feel pressure from other staff or from the publishers to accept or reject certain photographs? Explain the pressure. How do your gender, race, age, political affiliation and religious beliefs affect photographic content? How would you classify newsroom behavior as it applies to decisionmaking? Are specific routines evident in the newsroom? Please explain. Does your audience affect news content? How so? How are new reporters, photographers, and editors socialized to the functions of the newsroom? Does any one person or entity have ultimate control over news content?

33. Census data used represented projections and estimates for the county based on. 1990 Census data.

34. White, op. cit.

35. Tagg, op. cit.

36. Schramm, op. cit.

37. F.P. Hoy, Photojournalism: Photography with a Purpose. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1986, p.76.

Bissell is assistant professor of journalism at University of Alabama. An earlier version of this article was presented at the International Communication Association’s annual meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, July 1998.

Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Summer 2000

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