Media and Communication Ph.D. Dissertations


Gatekeeping Breaking News Online: How Social Media Affect Journalists' Crime News Sourcing and Dissemination in India

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Media and Communication

First Advisor

Louisa Ha (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Jill Zeilstra-Ryalls (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Srinivas Melkote (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Lisa Hanasono (Committee Member)


This dissertation study applies the Hierarchy of Influences Model proposed by Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese, to examine how the advent of social media has affected journalistic gatekeeping practices in India as the largest non-Western democratic country, identify the emerging challenges for the journalism industry, and explore sustainable strategies to address these challenges.

Nearly 2,700 journalists belonging to three of the largest press clubs in India were invited to complete an online survey. The survey examined journalists’ perceptions about social media’s usefulness and credibility as a professional tool. The questions further investigated the factors that influenced their decisions to source or select breaking crime stories from social media platforms and upload such crime stories both on their organization’s website, as well as their organization’s official Facebook or Twitter pages. The survey was completed by 274 journalists from 15 Indian cities, and their responses analyzed for this study. In addition, for a deeper and insightful understanding of the research problem, and for purposes of corroboration, elaboration and development, in-depth interviews were conducted with 18 print, television, and online editors from five of India’s largest metropolitan cities.

The research results can be described in three parts: (a) The survey results showed that journalists consider social media to be an extremely useful professional tool, yet they do not find the platforms credible or trustworthy. Hierarchical regression analyses indicated that while individual beliefs, organizational constraints, and social institutional influences impacted journalists’ web uploading decisions, such choices were also influenced significantly by journalists’ perceived usefulness and credibility of information available on social media. When sharing breaking crime news on organizational social media handles, journalists were only influenced by social system factors such as aptness of a story for their target audience, potential page views, advertising revenues, as well as their perceived usefulness of social media as a platform to share news. (b) During the in-depth interviews, editors corroborated key survey findings that social media was a useful tool for news media professionals, but they were cognizant that information available on such platforms could often not be trusted. The interviews also revealed key concerns and challenges that social media had brought about for news organizations, such as the risk of fake news, lack of time to verify information, lack of adequate social media usage guidelines, and need for speed often gaining precedence over accuracy. (c) Editors suggested several potentially sustainable strategies to address some of these emerging challenges such as investing in human resources, increasing gender and ethnic diversity in newsrooms, providing regular social media usage training for journalists, and using social media to connect more efficiently with sources, as well as members of the audience.

Consistent with findings of previous research conducted in Europe and USA, this study’s results imply that factors influencing gatekeeping decisions have changed radically with the advent of social media. As news media operate in multiple platforms, breaking stories, for example, are often selected for a specific platform, depending on the story’s aptness to that platform. Usefulness of a platform is also a factor that influences gatekeeping decisions. Other implications include the need for journalists to take a hard look at how social media are used for professional purposes, for editors to consider if crime news demands stricter gatekeeping norms, and for media managers to set social media usage guidelines for journalists, while at the same time also invest time, money and resources in building efficient social media journalism teams.

There were some significant differences too that distinguished Indian newsrooms from their Western counterparts. The results of the survey, as well as data from the interviews indicated that organizational factors and social institutional factors – two distinct stages of the Hierarchy of Influences Model – were perceived as one and the same by many Indian journalists. Editors clarified this could be because most news media owners were also large industrialists with interests in other businesses, and market forces. At the same time, many media owners were either members of large political parties, or closely associated with those parties. Organizational diktats therefore were often perceived by journalists as similar to political, advertising, and market pressure. Further, many editors said during the interviews that the term gatekeeper or the phrase gatekeeping did not adequately describe their role as journalists in an online-first era. They said while social media’s ability to break news had created multiple gates, guarding many of which were well beyond the scope of media organizations. Based on these findings, this researcher proposed that instead journalists and news organizations worked as news-conditioners today: they were unable to prevent the public from consuming much of the inaccurate, fake or misguiding information available on various online platforms. However, their own subscribers, readers, viewers, and followers were always provided the most accurate, latest, and relevant information. Such conditions can use the metaphor of an air-conditioning system, which provides ambient air to those within their area of influence but is unable to prevent anyone from stepping outside and breathing foul air.

Also, unlike the findings of some previous studies, there were no significant differences in how male and female journalists said they sourced, selected, and disseminated breaking crime stories online.

The results of the study offer a first-of-its kind insight into how journalists and journalism in India have been impacted by the advent of social media, the ways in which social media is used when sourcing, selecting, or sharing breaking crime stories, and the resultant challenges for journalism. In other words, the findings provide significant insights about current journalistic practices in India—a relatively understudied site—and also about social media’s effect on journalistic gatekeeping practices, and factors that influence news selection decisions in an online-first era. This study will hopefully help both media professionals and media scholars gain a deeper, more meaningful understanding about current journalistic practices and challenges in the world’s most populous democracy.