Lack of gatekeepers leads to flood of entertainment news

New communication channels, viral trends inundate media with soft stories
By By Zhao Yunze / 10-13-2016 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Social media operates according to a dialogic transmission system (many sources to many receivers). This is in contrast to traditional media that operates under a monologic transmission model (one source to many receivers).


In August, a divorce announcement by Chinese comedy actor Wang Baoqiang hit 700 million clicks in three days, leading some to claim he had stolen attention away from the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. By contrast, the news that two UN peacekeepers from China lost their lives and five others were injured during a mission in South Sudan in July received far less attention.

However, this does not mean that the public really cares only for celebrity news and has little concern for national affairs. From the perspective of mass communication, what the audience chooses to pay attention to cannot be used as the basis for a judgment on their individual worth or moral character. Forcing audiences to focus on one thing goes against the inherent laws of communication, which will incur negative effects.

Mass communication has been developing since the dawn of civilization. Throughout this process, humanity has gained a greater understanding of the principles and rules. Mass communication has manifested different characteristics in different eras due to the differences in communication technologies, forms of media and social patterns. Thus, it is necessary to keep exploring the laws of mass communication to better serve society.


Emotional proximity
Traditional theories of journalism can still be applied when answering the question of why some news items become popular and others do not. Five criteria are considered when determining newsworthiness: timeliness, impact, proximity, eminence and interest. No single element is given priority over the others in terms of news value. In fact, only two or three elements can make a news item explosive.

Proximity is the most important for news about celebrities. Readers are more attracted by news that is more emotionally, psychologically or regionally relevant—or more related to their interests.

In the real world, the distance between celebrities and the public may be far. However, audiences are familiar with the roles in films and television dramas. They unconsciously project their fondness for the roles onto the celebrities who play them.

In addition, when watching movies or dramas they are fascinated with, audiences often become so immersed that they place themselves in the position of the protagonist or believe themselves to share the same experience. Under such delusion or identification, the public project their feelings about the roles onto performers in reality. In other words, people pay more attention to those they are familiar with or fond of. In this sense, the popularity of celebrity news cannot be used as criticism for morality of the public.

Due to the emotional proximity, celebrity news tends to capture the public’s attention, spread quickly and sometimes even becomes a focus of public opinion. Thanks to the dissemination of film and television roles, different individuals and groups may have a common sentiment toward performers. This is why even trivial news about celebrities can spread far and wide in a short period.


Gatekeeper to consumer
Also, disproportionate coverage of celebrity news is greatly attributed to the changes in “gatekeepers” and communication channels. First identified by German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), gatekeeping is a process by which information is filtered to the public by the media. Gatekeeping occurs at all levels of the media structure—from a reporter deciding which sources are chosen to include in a story to editors deciding which stories are printed or covered—and includes media outlet owners and even advertisers. Individuals can also act as gatekeepers, deciding what information to include in an email or in a blog, for example.

Since the reform and opening up, market-oriented reform has targeted the media. In this context, many media outlets now compete to report entertainment news to capture a greater market share of the audience.

The rise of Internet media has amplified the phenomenon. Before the reform and opening up, media gatekeepers adhered to political principles. After the reform and before the rise of Internet media, traditional gatekeepers struck a balance between politics and market despite the growing role market forces played in media, and there was no inundation of entertainment news like there is today. In today’s social media, the absence of gatekeepers leads to the primacy of entertainment news.

Traditional gatekeepers have a responsibility to ensure public space is not overwhelmed with entertainment news, while in social media, users can decide whether to forward a news item by themselves. In other words, the gatekeepers of social media are individual consumers of news who can absolutely select news based on their own interests.

Before the emergence of social media, communication channels were controlled by organizations. In social media, information spreads through a network of friends established by users based on interpersonal relationships.


Media hype
In commercial society, the popularity of a celebrity can bring him or her lucrative returns. The value of celebrities in mass communication is similar to the role of the tipping point in the spread of epidemics. The tipping point is connected with a large number of receivers and thus is the key link in transmitting information.

To disseminate information about a new product quickly, the most effective way is to first spread the information to the tipping point. Celebrities are the best tipping point because they are followed closely by the media. Their endorsements, advertisements and even private information spread like a virus through the media. The more attention a celebrity can get from the public, the more commercial value he or she will have, which in turn will win him or her more commercial invitations and thus bring abundant rewards.

However, some people or organizations resort to various means of hype and even highlight the worst human characteristics to make a person become famous.

Malicious hype will impede the sound development of society and should be prohibited. It is normal for people to be fond of excellent performers because of a film or television show they have starred in. However, left unchecked, the attempt to attract social attention through false information, marketing and catering to vulgarity will lead to distorted values and undermine morality.

Therefore, we should adopt dialectical attitudes toward entertainment news. On one hand, we cannot regard all entertainment news as negative. On the other, we should be alert against hyped news. Furthermore, the fundamental way to reduce hyped entertainment news is to raise the sensibilities of the audience and enhance their abilities to examine information. It is also necessary for associations, organizations, editors and reporters to strengthen professional ethics and self-discipline.


Zhao Yunze is an associate professor from the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University of China.