For Journalists, Self-Censorship is Credibility Suicide

Image result for censored newspaper

What is the job of the news media? To report the news. Everyone agrees about that. But some well-intentioned self-imposed ethical guidelines that members of the news media take for granted are getting in the way of the industry’s fundamental mission: telling everything they know to a public whose right to know is sacred.

You know journalists have lost their way when they cheer the arrest and potential extradition to the U.S. of WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange. Any of us could be next; we should be circling the wagons. Yet they insist on focusing on such inanities as Assange’s personality, his “arrogance,” even his cat. Some even approve.

The other day NPR’s “Morning Edition” covered the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Everyone over age 40 remembers what happened: suffering from depression, chronic pain and opiate addiction, the singer put a shotgun in his mouth and blew his head off.

It’s one of the most famous suicides ever. NPR chose to be coy about it, mostly referring to Cobain’s “death” rather than his “suicide.”

Airbrushing well-known reality is silly. But, like most American media outlets, NPR was merely following the World Health Organization’s published guidelines on covering suicide. According to experts news accounts of suicide can feed a phenomenon called “suicide contagion” wherein people in emotional crisis are inspired by stories to see taking their own lives as a solution to their problems. As Time magazine wrote recently, “the more vivid the depiction of a death… the more it may contribute to suicide contagion.” Editors and producers are encouraged to avoid detailed descriptions of how victims of suicide did it, what their last note said, etc.

Reducing the suicide rate is a laudable goal. But journalists’ job is to report and analyze the news, not to reduce mortality. What’s next, refusing to mention hamburgers in the news because they contribute to arteriosclerosis? Cars because they kill people (and in vast numbers)? While we’re at it let’s censor war correspondence on the grounds that battle stories glorify militarism and thus prompt more wars!

Lying to readers is the worst sin a newspaper can commit. That includes lies of omission: readers pay for and have every right to expect the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from a product that promises exactly that. Playing cute by omitting important, relevant facts from the news, as in the Cobain story, seriously undermines the media’s credibility. That goes double when listeners and viewers know what really happened and realize they’re being treated like children by self-appointed nannies.

Moreover, self-censorship can destroy a story. Cobain’s death by suicide was a shocking where-were-you moment and a defining cultural experience for Generation X. I don’t see how Millennials could understand that from the NPR account. It wasn’t merely the fact that the lead singer of Nirvana had died. The way he died was central.

Another way the media loses credibility while trying to do the right thing is adhering to the widely accepted belief among corporate news outlets that they are somehow responsible for protecting national security. When the press receives classified government materials from a leaker or whistleblower they often contact the relevant agency to authenticate the documents and/or to allow them to suggest redactions. If you watched “The Post” you saw the Washington Post contact the Nixon Administration to give the White House a chance to argue why they shouldn’t publish the Pentagon Papers.

Media outlets like The Guardian and the New York Times shared the Edward Snowden files with the NSA and CIA so they could expunge information like the names of undercover intelligence operatives and suggest redactions. Even The Intercept (formerly a left-leaning media group) did this, to grievous effect: they foolishly shared leaked CIA documents with the feds, who used their analysis to track a whistleblower named Reality Winner. She is in prison.

During the Gulf War Geraldo Rivera got in trouble for drawing a map showing troop movements in the sand. The Pentagon threw him out of Iraq and many reporters agreed.

They were wrong. Journalists are not government employees. They’re solely responsible to news consumers, not the military or intelligence agencies who failed to safeguard their own secrets. Why shouldn’t a reporter report what they know, whatever they find out, whatever it is, if it’s news—no matter how sensitive? If the New York Times had gotten the D-Day plans a week ahead of time, they didn’t owe the War Department a phone call. They should have published, consequences be damned.

As the D-day example shows, respecting the public’s right to know is hard. Good people can die as a result. Wars may be lost. But for someone dedicated to journalism it’s an easy call. Either you’re a journalist or you’re nothing more than a low-rent liar and propagandist for the government.

Self-censorship often takes the form of policing newsworthy content for tastefulness. After Vice President Dick Cheney told a senator—on the floor of the senate!—to go have sex with himself, respectable media organizations dashed out the f— or otherwise danced around the nefarious fricative (as I am doing here because this column is syndicated). So dumb.

Everyone knows what Cheney said. No one could deny it was news. So print it.

Then there are the “tasteless” photos that are routinely withheld from printed pages and TV screens in the United States: sexual images like Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” and gruesome pictures of crime victims. America’s namby-pambyness is an outlier. In Latin America, photos of 9/11 jumpers ran on the front pages of major newspapers. But in the U.S., seventeen years later, the images are still scrubbed from public view. Even a sculpture based on those photos was removed from public viewing as too controversial.

It’s not like we don’t know these images exist. We saw them in live coverage on 9/11. Those who didn’t watch them then have heard about it. The media has decided that we’re too sensitive to see our own history. Even if you agree with their editorial decision, doesn’t it make you wonder what else they’re keeping from us?

Images of 9/11 jumpers underscored the horror of the day. Censorship doesn’t respect the dead. It whitewashes their agony.

The counterfactual argument, like airing ISIS snuff videos that might encourage the creation of more such imagery, is powerful. Even with such disgusting material, though, we should err on the side of the news and the public’s right to know. The alternative, the nanny media we have now, cannot be trusted and feeds into the demagogic framing of “fake news.”

(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)


  • I admit it’s a tough one, and in general I am in favor of transparency. However, I also agree that Geraldo did a Bad Thing. If someone had died because of his actions, he would have been partially responsible.

    Mass shooters are another example, many are now looking to go out in a big media splash. NZ government refused to release the recent shooter’s name specifically because of that. Do we give mass murders that which they crave? (and possibly inspire another – perhaps twenty feet from where you’re sitting right this minute)

    Journalists do have the power of free speech/press, just like any of us; however, they are responsible for the repercussions of that speech – just like any of us. Get someone killed and …?

    So, Facebook is cracking down on hate speech, fake news, and anti-vaxxers. Is that good or bad? We’ve seen multiple examples of what the FB echo chamber is capable of, the anti-vaxxers have created a few public health crises, climate change denial can kill all of us – who decides?

    I don’t have a solid answer for this one – I invite discussion.

    • alex_the_tired
      April 13, 2019 11:37 AM

      Facebook isn’t run by journalists. They are driven not by morally but by what their CEO tells them to do. A whore is a whore is a whore. I don’t care how rich Mark Zuckerberg is; he’s a greasy little stain to me.

      • @Alex – fair enough, but it still qualifies as ‘censorship’ under Ted’s rather broad interpretation of the term. Stain or not, Zuckerberg is caught between a rock and the deep blue sea.

        If FB continues as in the past, more people will die. Since FB is now aware of this, they are responsible for those deaths if they do continue. (see any Philosophy 101 course)

        If they start picking and choosing what’s allowed, then they may be guilty of censorship – depending on your definition. They’ve asked the government for *their* definition – which puts the government in charge of deciding what gets published and that damned well is censorship.

        Who decides?

  • alex_the_tired
    April 13, 2019 11:24 PM

    The problem I see is this: Facebook is only interested in what advances Facebook’s agenda (i.e., making money, increasing Facebook penetration of market, violating the fuck out of everyone’s privacy to make a quick buck, etc.). When they fight a court ruling, it isn’t because of a principle. It’s because the ruling disagreed with Facebook’s business model. There’s no higher consideration than that, and that model, by definition, doesn’t contain morality. It’s about maximizing revenue and not one other thing. If Facebook could make money off publishing child porn, I am willing to bet dollars to donuts that they would have a carefully worded white paper (and campaign donation) off to all the relevant politicians in 24 hours.
    In that regard, the Facebook model is really no different than the cigarette people and no different than the vape people. The coal people. The dnc. The uni-twin known as Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger. They’re only interested in the money and the power that comes with it.
    So Facebook lobbing the question back to the government isn’t because, gosh darn it, cue the American flag graphics, Facebook wants to do the “right thing.” It’s because Facebook’s lawyers–all of whom, I suspect would nod their heads in agreement with the LATimes’ lawyer who tried to put Ted’s nuts into a meat grinder on the order of her owners at the LAPD pension fund by arguing that the truth of the case was completely irrelevant–are simply waiting to hear back so that they can warp that definition, again, to serve Facebook.

    Fun fact: Facebook spent $22 million last year providing security for Mark Zuckerberg. Article had a photo of the Zuck jogging with four guards down a public road (what a douche, still trying to pull that “just an ‘umble coder, guv’ner” horseshit. He owns an entire island. Why doesn’t he jog on that?) All five (the four men and the one douche) were facing the same way. I think Zuckerberg shouldn’t let the beneficiaries of his life insurance policies keep making his security arrangements.

    • @Alex – we agree on all of that. Facebook is in it for the bucks, absolutely. A corporation’s got no soul, and Zuckerberg sold his long ago.

      But back to the question of self-censorship. Let’s say you, personally, invented something like FB. You had no profit motive, no intention of spying on anyone, you honestly wanted to help people connect.

      Then – oopsie – you discover you’d accidentally created an echo chamber of unprecedented proportions. A classical-conditioning cyber-feedback mechanism far worse than any suicide cult heretofore imagined. People die as a direct result of that which you created.

      What do you do? Do you allow all content, knowing that some people will die? Do you, yourself, decide what content may or may not be published? How do you decide?

      Full disclosure: I’ve got old hardcover copies of “The Anarchist’s Cookbook,” “The Whole Drug Manufacturer’s Catalog,” and a few other lesser-known but equally disreputable publications. I paid cash, in person, in a poorly-lit bookstore, long, long, ago. But then, I can be trusted with such things …

      • alex_the_tired
        April 15, 2019 12:43 PM

        What do I do? I shut it down. See the tomacco plant in the Simpsons.

      • Okay, Alex’s vote is in. He’d shut down Facebook, turn off the internet, cut all the phone lines and deploy radio jamming droidbots to ensure that the only way humans could communicate would be face to face, preferably by pointing and grunting.

        Anyone else have a less-drastic idea?

  • DaniilAdamov
    April 14, 2019 1:58 PM

    I am not anti-censorship per se (sometimes it really is the lesser evil and objectively required, as in the military secrets example, much-abused though that defense is). I do think it is too important to be entrusted to journalists, who as Ted says have a different, diametrically opposed task. Also I know them too well to trust them to make this kind of judgement for me, or for anyone. If they try they just corrupt their own work and diminish its usefulness to the public – which is especially damaging in a supposedly open society. Then there is also the matter that journalistic self-censorship is also censorship as exercised by their corporate owners. I certainly don’t trust THEM to do this, either.

    Let the governments do the censoring and the journalists do the muckraking. It’s what they’re for.

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