Project Censored

Annual media watchdog list critiques coverage of whistleblowers and wealth gaps -- and the notion of journalistic objectivity

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joe@sfbg.com

This year's annual Project Censored list of the most underreported news stories includes the widening wealth gap, the trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning for leaking classified documents, and President Obama's war on whistleblowers — all stories that actually received considerable news coverage.

So how exactly were they "censored" and what does that say of this venerable media watchdog project?

Project Censored isn't only about stories that were deliberately buried or ignored. It's about stories the media has covered poorly through a sort of false objectivity that skews the truth. Journalists do cry out against injustice, on occasion, but they don't always do it well.

That's why Project Censored was started back in 1976: to highlight stories the mainstream media missed or gave scant attention to. Although the project initially started in our backyard at Sonoma State University, now academics and students from 18 universities and community colleges across the country pore through hundreds of submissions of overlooked and underreported stories annually. A panel of academics and journalists then picks the top 25 stories and curates them into themed clusters. This year's book, Censored 2014: Fearless Speech in Fearful Times, hits bookstores this week.

What causes the media to stumble? There are as many reasons as there are failures.

Brooke Gladstone, host of the radio program On the Media and writer of the graphic novel cum news media critique, The Influencing Machine, said the story of Manning (who now goes by the first name Chelsea) was the perfect example of the media trying to cover a story right, but getting it mostly wrong.

"The Bradley Manning case is for far too long centered on his personality rather than the nature of his revelations," Gladstone told us. Manning's career was sacrificed for sending 700,000 classified documents about the Iraq war to WikiLeaks. But the media coverage focused largely on Manning's trial and subsequent change in gender identity.

Gladstone said that this is part of the media's inability to deal with vast quantities of information which, she said, "is not what most of our standard media does all that well."

The media mangling of Manning is number one on the Project Censored list, but the shallow coverage this story received is not unique. The news media is in a crisis, particularly in the US, and it's getting worse.

 

WATCHING THE WATCHDOGS

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, which conducts an annual analysis of trends in news, found that as revenue in journalism declined, newsrooms have shed 30 percent of their staff in the last decade. In 2012, the number of reporters in the US dipped to its lowest level since 1978, with fewer than 40,000 reporters nationally. This creates a sense of desperation in the newsroom, and in the end, it's the public that loses.

"What won out is something much more palpable to the advertisers," says Robert McChesney, an author, longtime media reform advocate, professor at University of Illinois, and host of Media Matters from 2000-2012. Blandness beat out fearless truth-telling.

Even worse than kowtowing to advertisers is the false objectivity the media tries to achieve, McChesney told us, neutering its news to stay "neutral" on a topic. This handcuffs journalists into not drawing conclusions, even when they are well-supported by the facts.

In order to report a story, they rely on the words of others to make claims, limiting what they can report.

"You allow people in power to set the range of legitimate debate, and you report on it," McChesney said.