The Self-Censorship of the U.S. Mass Media
May 6, 2000
It was an axiom of old-time journalism that the mass media must at least assume to stand for popular causes.
The reporters, announcers, and anchormen…pretend to speak for the people; and the public that read, listen, or watch them expect and believe that they are receiving this service.
And this expectation and confidence have given almost a century of American journalism an illusion of unassailable correctness.
However, the recent poll of 206 reporters and 81 news executives – 150 from local news outlets and 137 from national news organizations- conducted by prestigious research center shows quite different and sometimes opposite results.
Here are some details:
1. There is general agreement about the extent of self-censorship and its principal causes. Market pressures – manifested when newsworthy stories are avoided because they are too boring or complicated – are seen as the most common factor because of lack of average person’s appeal.
2. Significant percentages of respondents report that the stories, which may conflict with organizational interests, or hurt the financial interests of news organization or its parent company, or affect adversarial interests of the advertisers, are not pursued but ignored. Typically, the journalists do not decide on their own to avoid newsworthy stories. More than half of them said they either get signal from their bosses to avoid such stories or ignore them based on how they think their bosses would react.
3. Even investigative journalists, such as the authors of 60 minute, 20-20, 48 hours and some muckrakers, are likely to avoid the impact of business pressures on editorial decisions. Full half of this group says newsworthy stories are often or sometimes ignored because they conflict with the economic interests of a news organization.
4. About one-third of local reporters and 15 percent of those in the national media say that they have soften the tone of a news story on behalf of the interests of their news organization. They were told to drop the story because it was dull or overly complicated, but one-quarter of them suspect the real reason for the decision was the story could harm their company’s financial interests.
5. A majority of journalists believe that corporate owners exert at least a fair amount of influence on decisions about which stories to cover. The survey provides considerable evidence that at least for some journalists, there has been an unmistakable intrusion of commercial interests into newsroom decisions. For instance, about 20 percent local and 17 percent national reporters say they have faced criticism or pressure from their bosses after producing or writing a piece that was seen as damaging to their company’s financial interests.
6. Overall, journalists have a more pessimistic attitude toward their job performance than the poll done previous year, and more local journalists report influence by corporate owners and advertisers in decisions on which stories to cover.
7. Finally, on the question of whether the media does a good job of informing the public, both local and national journalists give themselves poorer marks than last year. In 1999, a majority of journalists said that the news business did a good or excellent job of balancing journalism’s twin goal of telling the public what it wants to know and what it needs to know. Now only one third of them give the professional high mark and with majorities in both groups saying the media does only a fair job at this crucial task.
Perhaps most revolting is that significant portion of the journalists said they have avoided covering a story because it could hurt the financial interests of the news organization’s corporate owners and advertisers, and the assumption by the public of “objectivity” in reporting has been severely compromised
There is an absurd and unacceptable degree of concentration of economic, cultural, and political power into so few hands of media owners who influence on what the public should or need to know...
What does it mean to say we have freedom of speech in democratic society?
Many of us think free speech is a right enjoyed by everyone in our society. In fact, it does not exist as an abstract right. There is no such thing as a freedom as detached from the socio-economic reality in which it might find a place.
Speech is a form of interpersonal behavior. This means it occurs in a social context, in homes, workplaces, schools, before live audiences or vast publics via print and electronic media.
Speech is intended to reach the minds of others. Some kinds of speech are actively propagated before mass audience when the contents are sanctioned officially by the state power and promoted by the wealthy corporate owners, and others are systematically excluded and ignored when the story goes against the interests of the powerful and rich institutions.
In sum, freedom and power are not always antithetical, but frequently symbiotic
One of the basic rules of self-censorship is that you do not report news without official confirmation. Thus, for example, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of growing economic woes, the media do not question the Wall Street actions or White House policies until the recession is well under way, because the reporting may cause panic in the stock market.
In addition, the media decline to cover the significant affairs of state that inform the public and slide into the content that entertains frivolous, petulant and pie-in-the-sky dream.
How are the journalists in South Korean mass media?
Are they a bunch of:
1. Docile lapdogs that sit idly on the politician’s lap enjoying a siesta,
2. Sycophant pussycats that curl up with a whimper,
3. Howling wolves that go after vigorously for their meal?