Journalists: Gatekeepers or Gate-openers?

A Reinterpretation of the Westley-MacLean Model Based on MacLean's Unpublished Papers

Very preliminary draft: September 15, 1999

Luigi Manca
Benedictine University

The purpose of this paper is to offer a new interpretation of "A Conceptual Model for Communications Research," better known to several generations of graduate and undergraduate journalism students as the Westley-MacLean model. I derived this interpretation, one that is not yet available in the existing literature, through a review of some unpublished papers of Malcolm S. MacLean, Jr., who was with Bruce H. Westley coauthor of the model.

Traditionally, the Westley-MacLean model is understood as proposing that journalists act as gatekeepers in the mass communication process and, because of their privileged role, they ought to report the news objectively and check their own political convictions at the door as they enter the newsroom. They ought to be impartial referees as competing advocates of this or that cause struggle to promote their particular interpretations or spins to the public. In this paper, however, I would like to suggest that, for one of the coauthors, the purpose of journalism goes beyond impartial refereeing and newspeople ought to become active players in the political process--not as one-sided spokespersons for this or that cause, but as involved facilitators of the information flow within the society. In short, they ought to become gate-openers.

The concept of gatekeeper implies a somewhat privileged position in the communication process in which the person or the organization acting in that role makes the decisions as to what information is passed on or withheld to the public. On the other hand, the concept of gate-opener suggests a more democratic role for journalists and news organizations--namely, the role of providing citizen with access to information, and would-be-advocates with access to the public discourse.

Through their model, Westley and MacLean were the first to explain in a systematic way how, in the mass communication situation, the gatekeeper functions as a liaison between the public on the one hand and the world's events and competing interpretations of those events on the other. The notion of the gatekeeper originated from Kurt Lewin's research on interpersonal relations and was first applied to mass communication by David M. White. Westley and MacLean integrated White's concept with Theodore M. Newcomb's model of face-to-face communication, which from a two-role model (communicator and receiver) became a three-role model (advocate, gatekeeper, and receiver). Newcomb's model, known as the ABX model, outlined three fundamental elements: A (communicator), B (receiver), and X (object of orientation). Westley and MacLean introduced an additional element, which they called C, whom they described as a gatekeeper and as an agent of B who would provide B with access to those As and Xs outside B's immediate reach. Thus Newcomb's original ABX model became the Westley-MacLean ACBX model.

Twenty years after the model was first published, in discussing its implications for journalistic conduct, Westley wrote: "Were we implying that the gate-keepers did not consciously influence what was withheld or passed on to the readers, listeners and viewers? As I recall, my answer was that the role of definition proscribes such purposive behavior; that the extent to which a particular gate-keeper conforms to this role expectation is an empirical question." On the other hand, as it will transpire through the reading of his unpublished papers, MacLean had a different position on this matter. He believed that the role of journalists (gatekeepers) ought to be to exercise expert judgment, interpret events, summarize their own as well as others' interpretations, and take responsibility for such conscious influence of what is withheld or passed on to the public.

Unfortunately, Westley and MacLean did not specifically address their differences. They produced the model at the beginning of their careers. (Westley eventually described the Model as MacLean's and his "youthful indiscretion.") If different points of view existed at the time the two were working together, they were probably not as sharp as they now appear from a comparative reading of their later papers. The model was in fact left open to accommodate different interpretations.

It is in the context of this openness that I will undertake the reconstruction of MacLean's interpretation through a special reading of his unpublished papers. It should be clear that I do not propose this one particular interpretation as the only correct one. I believe that the openness of the Westley-MacLean Model is one of its major strengths and one of the main reasons for its success. Perhaps, had the model been tied too closely to one particular school of thought, it might have lost much of its universal appeal and it might not have continued, after more than forty-five years, to be an important reference item in the literature on communication theory and research.


As my contribution to this conference, I would like to go back to MacLean's unpublished papers looking for those theoretical insights that may help in the reconstruction of his position on the role of the gatekeeper/gate-opener in the mass communication process. In doing so, I will skip a lot of the content of these papers--namely, MacLean's discussion of the new journalism program he and his colleagues attempted to develop at the University of Iowa School of Journalism and his examination of the pedagogical assumptions underlying the program. For my purpose here, these are only background materials. On the other hand, MacLean's discussion of the mission of journalism in society--which is also pervasive in the papers--will provide the real focus for my reading. More specifically, I will take the liberty of re-arranging MacLean's writings, using his own words, through a cut-and-paste process aimed a producing a document which I know MacLean himself never put together as one piece, but which I believe will accurately reflect his views on journalism and the role of the gatekeeper/gate-opener.

My plan is to make MacLean's own words come alive through a discourse on the issue of journalistic conduct. I am extremely intrigued by this experiment. I had produced an earlier paper in which I examined the same works for the same purpose but, in writing up the findings, I felt I had to interject a lot of my own introductions, transitions, and comments to cement together the various fragments I had chosen from MacLean's unpublished papers. Now I realize that I don't really need to do so. In fact, I find that this new method of letting MacLean's direct quotes stand by themselves provides a much more forceful presentation of his ideas. I believe that the reason why this operation works is that there is a powerful and systematic logic underlying MacLean's ideas that provides the real foundation for reading all the separate fragments as one whole piece of writing. I see now my own contribution to this discourse as that of having offered the concept of the gate-opener, which I believe may provide a useful key for the reading of MacLean's papers.

Reexamination of the Role of the Journalist

As we read MacLean's unpublished papers on journalism education, we need to understand the particular period in which he was producing them: from 1967 to 1972.

In terms of MacLean's personal history, this is the period in which he served as director of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and attempted to launch an innovative undergraduate journalism program that came under attack by many of the local media, the Iowa legislature, and even several members of his own faculty. MacLean, who had come to Iowa as the first George Gallup Professor of Communication Research and who, in the eyes of the people who hired him, was to serve primarily in the graduate program as a star researcher, became instead deeply concerned with issues in undergraduate education and accepted the director position so that he could help develop the new program. In this period, his writings focused on that program. They were not meant to be published in scholarly journals. As a result, there is a certain freedom and a certain candor in these writings that would not be appropriate in scientific literature and one can find there some special insights into MacLean's thinking that are not available in his earlier publications.

In the broader scene, this was also the period of social unrest and cultural change in United States. A well-educated white liberal from Minnesota, MacLean must have undoubtedly been affected by such major news stories as the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the protest against the on-going war in Vietnam. The experience of such divisive forces within American society is likely to have led him to reexamine many of the assumptions about role of the media and about education for journalism and mass communication.

And now quoting directly from the MacLean papers....

Meeting Community Needs

With a few exceptions journalism practice is inadequate to the time. But so, too, is journalism education. Both are our business. [MacLean, 1969]

Suppose that I, as a journalism teacher, ask myself: What am I for? If I close in on that question at one level, I might answer: I am for teaching young people to do the things that journalists do. In a sense, I make myself an agent for the journalistic industry and for the young people who want to be journalists.

If I approach the same question from another level, I might answer: I am for helping people to discover and fulfill the information needs of their communities. Thus I make myself an agent for the members of the larger society. And I do so in large part by helping others to see themselves primarily as communicative agents for the communities and enterprises within which they work.

Now, if current journalistic enterprises are discovering and fulfilling the information needs of their communities and, if they are designed to continue to do so, then what I do as a journalism teacher might well be the same for both levels of approach. That is, in order to fulfill the larger interest, I need only to fulfill the smaller one. By preparing young people to do the things journalists do, I contribute my part to satisfying information needs at a broad level. Well, yes, if...

Today, I believe, our journalists come nowhere near discovering or fulfilling the information needs of their communities. If I am right in this belief, then answers for the large system cannot be the same as those for the smaller one. I cannot fulfil my larger aim simply by teaching young people to do what journalists do. [MacLean, 1970]

Our newsmen are now making decisions most have not been well prepared to make. Few have adequate background in social science even when they have had college courses in social science. Such courses seldom seem to help them to understand well critical problems of today.

Analysis of community systems suggests to me that news media as well as other agencies must perform functions of intelligence agencies: tell one set of subsystems what another set is doing and why. For example, they would critically analyze what schools are doing. They should raise dirty questions about what schools and other agencies are doing. We need more enterprising newsmen. Our people need to know about the tremendous differences in quality between central city schools and those in the suburbs. [MacLean, 1968]

Maintaining Objectivity

Many of us have taken ethics and responsibility among newsmen to mean [narrowly] that they would keep clear of bribes, even subtle ones, that they would write headlines which accurately reflect the contents of the stories below them, that they would not succumb to pressures from publishers or blandishments from public relations men, that they would act on our behalf as watchdogs to keep our governmental leaders from going astray. (MacLean, 1968)

Objectivity in reporting was developed in part to ensure fair play, but also to avoid offending clients. In the hand of poor reporters and editors, objectivity becomes a neutralizing agent. In the hands of good ones, it can often excite more response than opinionated editorial material.

The newsman's objectivity criterion may encourage superficial, quickie interviews of activist celebrities and so give a very misleading impression of what is going on. For example, constructive efforts of young ghetto groups may go unnoticed.

Objectivity often means the reporting of effects without the possible causes, the events without the forces leading to them.

How can a reporter come to understand and then get his readers or viewers to understand why some ghetto blacks so mad and sad? (MacLean, 1968)

The whole area of how we know what we know, what philosophers refer to as epistemology, I think must be a central concern of ours. Walter Cronkite, at the end of his evening news show, looks us in the eye and says, "And that's the way it is," then whatever the date is, and then the whole thing closes off, and you see the titles go by, and Walter turns to something else. I think he should instead say: "That's what our editors put together out of the way our correspondents saw it and our crews decided to take pictures of it."

I think that all throughout journalism there is a misleading division between fact and fiction or fact and opinion. There are various cues, often subtle, which suggest that somehow pure objectivity is possible, that a newsman observer can jump outside of his skin, outside of his senses, and tell it like it is. I think you can see this in the division between the news and editorial pages. The implication seems to be that the news is not based on individual viewpoint, that it comes from an opinionless, disembodied writer. (MacLean, 1972)

Knowing and Using Metaphors

What I get in my understanding about journalism is that our thinking and our use of language hinge on metaphorical processes. That is, we move from not knowing something to knowing it, or knowing it in one way to knowing it in another way by metaphorical processes. The unfamiliar becomes familiar through our ability to use and understand appropriate metaphors. (MacLean, 1972)

Developing Sensitivity

I think that the so-called new journalism capitalizes on that. By looking at an issue or event through dialogue and keen description of various participants, new journalists may vastly extend the metaphorical range.

I feel it's very important, not because there haven't been occasionally "old" journalists who have been awfully good writers and have used a lot of devices to help their readers understand what is going on. But there is an awful lot of mundane, routine, hack writing, picture taking and presentation, film production and editing, and the like. As Alex Edelstein suggested in one of his papers, it isn't enough to provide the mundane relatively sterile kind of news we get where "spokesmen" talk and talk and talk and there's no real feel for what's happening. We get no sense of impact on the people who are involved in events. We learn little about how and why the events occurred. (How and why, of course, are only theoretical.) (MacLean, 1972)

Like other social institutions, news systems grew to meet human needs. In a very real sense, they act as our scouts, bringing to us a great deal of information on which, in part, we base many of our economic and political attitudes and decisions. With changing needs and new technology, these institutions have changed. They can now instantly reach out to bring us news from all over the world. They can now bring us excellent picture in color. Now, live and in color, we can see a Detroit newsman shove his mike under the chin of some bystander to ask: "Sir, what do you think of the looting?" Or we can watch film of a suburban white woman holding a loaded revolver in her hand as she drives into the city. But we still seem to know very little about the potential impact of such messages. (MacLean, 1968)

Daring to Describe Problems

To what extent do local newsmen gloss over mistakes of police and city officials to keep on the right side of their favorite news sources? Or perhaps to keep a good image of the city? Failure of newsmen to report good things done by blacks and bad things done by police leads some Negroes to see the press as a cover-up.

The conflict orientation of many newsmen leads them to pay attention to people like Rap Brown and Stokeley Caramichael just as they earlier did to the late, noisy senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. This attention confers status which in turn demands further attention. (MacLean, 1968)

In many large cities, public transportation has badly deteriorated and fares have increased as more people bought cars and expressways are built. Of course, this hurts most the people who can't afford cars. Ironically, in some cities, the poor, through the high fares they pay, are subsidizing the busing of the town's school children. In general, newsmen have paid little or no attention to this problem, especially before the riots.

At Atlanta, engineers planned and put through a freeway which neatly split the blacks from a park they had previously enjoyed. Should some of our press watchdogs have anticipated such a problem? (MacLean, 1968)

In a system framework, it becomes clear that the life and health of a community system depend heavily on continuing effective, relevant communication among its various segments. ...Through system analysis, we can draw an analogy to biological organisms where disease develops in some of the limbs, but is not given much attention until boils and sores break out on the skin. (MacLean, 1968)

Consider the symbolic nature of rioting, of looting, of fire bombing: Look, Whitey establishment! Listen, you bastards! You are sick and do not know it, and we'll all go down the drain if you guys with the money and power don't get off your dead asses and do something about it.

I see an implied demand that our communicators need to know deeply, emphatically, and at the same time to be able to analyze objectively and communicate what it means to to be poor among the rich, to be hungry among the well-fed, to be black among the white, to be degraded among the smug, to be sick among the healthy, to be unheard, unheard, unheard--in a society noisy with messages. (MacLean, 1968)

Becoming Heretics

I suggest we journalism teachers might reach our great impact by developing our journalism schools' programs to make heretical, subversive infiltrators of our graduates.

What might be the nature of such a heretic? For one thing, he is at least as competent as our graduates of today in basic communicative skills--and I emphasize the plural. That means he can write well and appropriately. He can use a camera effectively, produce pictures which say something. He can film and knows how to handle video and audio tape and other tools of broadcasting. And he knows how to put these together in packages which make real differences to his intended audience.

Our heretic is deeply concerned and thoughtful about human condition. He cares about the consequences of his work--not just the immediate results, but especially the long run. He has high purpose. He lives for much more than just to bide time and make a buck or two between birth and death. He becomes careful in observation, creative and rigorous in analysis, bright in interpretation and synthesis, thorough in follow-through. He feels keenly his responsibility to his fellow man.

Our heretic knows how to work well with people. He learns to shape the role he plays and to test its limits. He grasps well the nature and processes of the system he works in and the functions of that enterprise within its community. He invents. He thinks creatively about what could be and moves toward those alternatives he believes should be. He watches opportunities to encourage change in those directions. Given a chance, he hires or urges the hiring of other heretics and supports their efforts.

Our heretic has courage, patience, and, in battle, a tough skin. He knows that any basic change makes waves. Biologists tell us that irritability is a basic sign of life. A successful heretic will find lots of signs of life. He becomes a troublemaker. If nobody bitches about what he's doing, he probably isn't doing much. (MacLean, 1967)


The Westley-MacLean model proposes a view of the journalist as a liaison between the public and the world, whose function is to serve as a scout for the community and to provide people with access to events and to one another. In the model's terminology, the journalist acts in the role of C and the public in that of B; then the events are called Xs, and advocates of particular views or interpretations of a given event are described as As.

Westley and MacLean defined the C role in function of the B role. That is, in order to maintain successful orientation to their world, the members of the audience (Bs) support the services of the gatekeeper/gate-opener (C) who acts as their agent. This definition's obvious implication for journalism ethics is that the mission of the gatekeeper/gate-opener ought to be to serve the information needs of the public.

Journalistic objectivity may be seen as a means to serve such needs and, thus, it may be inferred that the conduct of the journalist/gatekeeper prescribed by the Westley-MacLean Model is to report and edit the news without consciously influencing what is withheld from or passed on to the public. In the context of this interpretation, then, the difference between the role of the journalist/gate-keeper (C) and the role of the advocate (A) is that C acts nonpurposively as an objective and impartial scout for the public, while A acts purposively as a proponent of a particular point of view or opinion. Although, of course, we may recognize that complete objectivity is not entirely possible, we may still want to maintain this notion as an ideal to which we would want our journalist/gatekeeper to aspire.

On the other hand, the reading of MacLean's unpublished papers may suggest another interpretation: We may infer that the conduct of the journalist prescribed by the model is, more broadly, to act as a facilitator of communication within the community and among its various segments. In this case, while the journalist would continue to act in the role of C, the members of the community served by C could act not only in the role of B, as receivers of information, but also in the role of A, as advocates.

In short, the journalist/gatekeeper becomes the journalist/gate-opener. Though he never used the term itself in his writings, MacLean wanted his ideal journalist to act as a gate-opener for the many people so "unheard... in a society noisy with messages."

In this way of thinking, it could be inferred that the role of the journalist/gatekeeper/gate-opener (C) in the Westley-MacLean Model is to be defined not only in function of B (i.e., as an agent of B) but also in function of A--i.e. as a provider of access to a particular audience for a particular point of view. Thus, the C role should be concerned not only with issues dealing with objectivity and fairness in reporting and editing the news, but also with issues dealing with objectivity and fairness in administering the people's right to access--and the term "access" should be used here in a broad sense, involving not only an individual's right to write a letter to the editor or to present an editorial comment over the air, but even more important, involving people's right to have their particular point of view represented in the gate-opener's rendering of the story in a way that they (the proponents of that point of view) would be willing to accept without any need for major amendments, qualifications, or corrections.

As a gate-opener, C is responsible not only to the consumers of information in the audience (Bs), but also to the members of that audience who feel they need to advocate a particular position or point of view (As). The reading of MacLean's unpublished papers suggests that, for the gate-opener, these two kinds of journalistic responsibilities must go hand-in-hand since in order to assist the members of the public in maintaining an adequate orientation to their world, the gatekeeper/gate-opener must also be sensitive to the needs of advocates and their right to access to the media and to the public conscience.