Combating the Censorship of Journalism


By RACHEL WEST – MANAGING EDITOR

In a twenty-first century world, it can seem like access to information is immediate.

When a starlet causes a scandal, it’s on the Internet in seconds. When a breaking news story comes in, you get an alert on your iPhone telling you all about it.

Information, and thus the media, now works at the speed of light. We can find out about anything in real time with the push of a button.

Because of the seeming immediacy of information, it is often easy to overlook occurrences of one of the biggest obstacles to free media in the world: censorship.

It has become a dirty word (for good reason), and it’s something we convince ourselves doesn’t happen to us or in our space anymore.

It’s very easy to say that censorship is the work of dictators, something that happens in China or North Korea or Saudi Arabia. We are a country with a free press, after all.

Except when we’re not.

Except when the United States media is being called “more controlled” and “more susceptible to censorship than ever” at the latest Inter Press Service panel in Norway. Except when the United States military censors photographs taken by the Miami Herald at Guantanamo Bay.

Except when a high school student is banned from even writing a story about medical marijuana, with her principal refusing the story because he thinks student journalism should serve as “marketing” and “a mouthpiece” for the school.

These instances are not isolated. A simple Google search about censorship in the United States yields hundreds of results.

Local governments are censoring small town newspapers. Major national newspapers are being told that they cannot print a story because it is a matter of national security. College and high school journalists are being silenced by their administrations, which are afraid of repercussions reflected in donations.

These are only the instances that have been reported. Successful censorship, after all, means that no one finds out it has happened.

So the number of incidents of censorship in modern journalism is probably much more than we can even believe, particularly here in the society of the “free press.”

As easy as it is to say that the censorship of journalism doesn’t affect you personally, it clearly affects how you perceive the world around you.

How would we perceive Nixon if the Washington Post had been censored instead of breaking the Watergate story?

How would history remember the Vietnam War if the New York Times had been silenced instead of releasing the Pentagon Papers?

Bringing an end to the censorship of journalism is important because journalism helps a society shape their perception of current events. If journalists cannot print stories about events or cannot print a full story, then it is society that suffers from the lack of information about the world around them.

This is not just something that affects readers on a national level, however. This is something that happens on college campuses as well. A college newspaper might operate on a smaller scale, but the fundamentals and goals are the same, and thus it is equally important that student journalists not be silenced.

The stakes are lower when you are dealing with collegiate journalism, true, but the point of collegiate journalism is threefold: to prepare student journalists for a career in journalism, to keep students informed about events on the campus and in the world, and, as is always a principle of journalism, to watchdog those collegiate bodies that have extreme power over the day-to-day lives of students.

This includes college administrations, faculty congresses, and even student governments.

When information about the campus and about these collegiate authorities is censored, either by outside forces or by the journalists themselves, there ceases to be journalism.

Instead, there is marketing literature and being a “mouthpiece” for the college, which is not the purpose of collegiate journalism.

In my four years as a writer and editor for the Cento, I have experienced censorship in all forms.

My editors have been screamed at by an administration figure over a proposed article that I wrote and told that they could not publish the article under threat of repercussions for the newspaper.

I have received emails from different college officials that, though polite and professional, made it clear that they were displeased with the way they or their department was represented in an article I wrote or authorized and that there could be consequences of that.

The leader of a prominent campus organization has told me that if I published an article that she disagreed with, she would make sure that my remaining years at Centre were very difficult, socially and academically.

Even worse, in my opinion, are the efforts that people brush off as “not censorship” but which seriously impinge on journalistic freedom.

These are the well-meaning administration officials who ask to read an article before it goes to print (the underlying thought being “so that I can make sure it says what I think it should”).

It is the faculty member who asks to see a transcript of their interview “so they can make sure they said everything correctly.” It is the person who suggests “maybe our advisor should approve every article before it’s printed.”

It is the student leaders who blur the lines between organizations and ask that a writer who is also a member of their organization write about them.

It is when they suggest to an editor who is a part of their membership that they should particularly edit an article or all articles about them to “make sure it reflects their message.”

It is student leaders and administration that refuse to talk to the press about an issue and then discredit a story when their point of view is not represented.

I am not going to say that we are or always have been a model of journalism fighting against censorship. Sometimes, we have folded and let those that would silence us have their way.

When I was a sophomore, nothing seemed scarier than a too-polite email from a college official. Even when I was willing to fight, sometimes my editors were not.

That is not a critique of anyone personally. It is difficult to balance the demands of being a student and being a journalist, and sometimes you just are not equipped to fight.

Recently, we have folded less and less. We have committed to the fight that says we are not going to let anyone censor us, whether that means telling us that we cannot publish something or telling an editor to edit a story a certain way.

The Cento has committed itself to responsible journalism, and that means not letting anyone say we cannot print the truth or an honest opinion.

I have always been grateful for the level of student journalism that has been available to me at Centre and from the Cento. Our newspaper is allowed to exist and generally allowed to operate independently.

Our faculty advisor does not attempt to stifle our creativity or our business model. Usually, officials accept our controversial articles as a standard part of journalism.

Despite that, I have dealt with more instances of censorship in four years than I imagined possible when I first started out.

It is not always meant to demean the work I am doing, and sometimes I do not think the person who is doing it even realizes what they are attempting to do.

The work done by student journalists at Centre will continue to remain important as long as there are students here who are committed to receiving the finest-quality education and college experience.

That is why we will continue the fight against censorship and remain committed to providing high-quality student journalism.


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