Curators and Gatekeepers: Who Do You Trust?

by Ken Mueller on July 31, 2012 · 13 comments

Studio 54.

As a broadcast journalist in the 1980s I had to make a lot of decisions. With multiple newscasts every hour, and a limited amount of time in each newscast, I had to make a determination about which stories were read on the air, and in which order.

Additionally, because of the nature of radio news, I had a limited amount of time for each story. I didn’t have the luxury of spending a lot of time hashing out the facts and the implications of those facts. In order to keep ourselves on track, we took your typical letter-sized paper, cut it in half, and shoved it in the typewriter (remember those??). We would start typing, and once you hit the end of the paper, your story had to be done.

In effect, I was doing what every other journalist and editor around the world does everyday. I was answering the question,

What is news?

If it didn’t make the cut, if I didn’t think it was important enough, whatever it was, it wasn’t news. It wasn’t important.

Fast forward to 2012 and we still have gatekeepers. News organizations still make these determinations via traditional means, as do websites and blogs. But beyond that we are all gatekeepers, or as we say nowadays: curators. Gatekeepers and curators are very similar in the tasks, though the term curator seems to carry with it a bit more…prestige. Or at least thoughtfulness.

Gatekeeper seems to denote that someone is opening and closing a gate, determining who or what gets in, or out. Kind of like the old days of Studio 54 in New York City where people would line up down the street, hoping to get into the famous disco. The guys at the door would walk up and down the line, choosing people, seemingly at random, to go inside. Perhaps it was just the way they looked, or how they were dressed, or the expression on their face. It might seem arbitrary, but gatekeepers generally have some sort of criteria for the decisions they make.. But the idea of gatekeeping leaves those left on the street wondering why they weren’t chosen. We look at the news and internally shout at the screen and wonder why.

Why did they lead with that specific story? Why didn’t such and such a story even get mentioned? Is there a reason one story got more time?

As a result, gatekeepers are often viewed with a bit of skepticism. Look at the numbers for the level of trust we put in the press and television news, as measured by the Harris Confidence Index. They are incredibly low:

Harris Confidence Index

We just don’t seem to trust the media. And yet we still have our favorite news sources, online and off, that we have deemed trustworthy. It might be a network, or favorite paper, and often, I think, it has more to do with our own personal gatekeeping, where we choose to attend to, and believe, those news sources that are more closely allied with the way we think.

A curator on the other hand, doesn’t seem to carry as much baggage as the gatekeeper. It seems to have a bit more prestige, and when we frame someone as a “curator” we would probably assign them a higher level of confidence or trust.

I spent 13 years as a museum curator in NYC. There were several aspects to that job, which in many ways are similar to the job of a reporter. In a museum you have a collection of items.

The first role of a curator is to determine which items are worthy of being in the collection. There are generally two ways in which this happens. First, you can go out in search of specific items that you think are important, and second, people often bring you items and you have to determine whether to accept them or not. The interesting thing about collecting these items is that you don’t just collect what you like, but what you think is culturally important, either historically or based on their specific time period. I might not like the highly volatile rantings and ravings of Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s, but his place in radio history, and American history, is important and worthy of study.

The second role of the curator is determine what to do with the items you collect. How will they be presented, and in what context? I would often choose a certain series of “objects”  that fit into a certain theme, and then present them in some sort of context, with explanation. The goal: education. Since I was the radio curator at the Museum of Television & Radio, the objects that I collected were recordings of radio programs. The exhibits, or context, for those programs might take the shape of “Rock ‘n’ Roll and Radio”, which was a sociological and cultural look at the relationship between radio and music from the 1940s to the present, or perhaps, “FDR on Radio: The Voice of an Era”, examining how F.D.R. used radio, particularly during the depression and WWII.

Curators don’t merely share; they share with more thought, intention, and context.

With social media, we are all gatekeepers and curators.

Every status update, every tweet, is an “object” that we either create, share, or curate. As we see things around the web, we make a determination as to which of these objects are worth sharing. We like, comment, share, retweet, pin, and so on. Each time we do that, whether we provide context or not, we are endorsing that object.

Social networks of all sorts are built on the notion of sharing and curating. But the problem of trust remains. We are still in the early days of social media, and the things we share are generally shared originally by friends, the people we trust.  But often, like the specific news outlets which we choose to follow, our judgment might be clouded. We share things that resonate with us, and tend to conform to or bolster our own opinions and ideologies, and we often share them in a way that I like to call “willy-nilly.”

“I agree with that, so I’ll share it”

And we click the button. Often without any sort of context or critical thinking.

We need to think more like curators as opposed to merely gatekeepers. Share thoughtful objects and pieces, while providing some context. Explain why we are sharing them, whether we agree with it or not.

Be more thoughtful. Share. But share intentionally, not randomly. Give context.

And as we pluck things from the web, think about the source. Who do you trust and why do you trust them? Is it because they are reliable, or merely because we agree with their ideology or worldview?

So a few tips:

1. Share – By all means, share. This is what makes the social web go ’round. Share early and often. Promote the things you like.

2. Think before you share – Take a few seconds to check it out. Just because you “like” what it says, is it true? Is that picture photoshopped? Certainly you can’t fact-check everything, but you can consider the source.  Also, don’t assume that everyone receiving your shared object will agree with you. But remember, as you share, your reputation and level of trustworthiness is on the line.

3. Provide context – Tell us why you are sharing. Tell us your thoughts as to why you think this particular object is worthy of being shared.

4. Be prepared for the reaction – Every once in awhile you might post something that you think is spot on. But never assume that everyone who sees what you post will agree with you. That’s OK. Just try to keep it civil and don’t take it personally. Too often we assume that everyone with whom we’re connected on Facebook thinks like us. That’s just not the case.

5. Control your sharing – On Facebook, you have privacy settings that dictate who is capable of seeing what you share. use them. Recently a friend of mine commented on a post that a friend of theirs had shared. They shared it “publicly” so that everyone could see it, and because my friend commented, it showed up in my newsfeed. I noticed some glaring factual errors and added a comment to correct the error. I thought I did it in a very polite way, but the original poster shouted me down, disregarded what I had written, and told me I had no right to comment since I wasn’t their friend. If you want to be very careful how you share, share only to friends. If you go beyond to “friends of friends” or “public” you will get reactions from people you don’t know. I personally share just about everything I do publicly, because I have nothing to hide and I like the reaction. I’m also very careful about the nature of what I share. But you need to decide for yourself who your intended audience will be.

You are a gatekeeper and a curator. These are roles that we should take seriously.








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