Media Comment: When the media engages in self-censorship

There lurks, even in the media, the “watchdog of democracy,” factors that will prevent a story from appearing or will provide it a special spin.

Newspaper (illustrative). (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Newspaper (illustrative).
Balancing journalism’s twin goals of telling the public what it wants to know and what it needs to know is not only an ethical matter for journalists but a very real concern for the media consumers.
There is, though, another issue: when the media selects, under pressure or out of free choice, not to tell its reading and listening public what it should know. We have pointed out many times in our columns that the most powerful media influence lies in what is not revealed to its consumers.
Any university journalism course will teach that there are two forms of media censorship in the media: censorship and self-censorship. As one online article explains: “Censorship occurs when a state, political, religious or private party prohibits information from reaching citizens. Self-censorship occurs when journalists themselves prevent the publication of information... because they are fearful of what could happen if they publish certain information – they are fearful of injury to themselves or their families, fearful of a lawsuit or other economic consequence.”
A case could be that the newspaper’s owner is being investigated by authorities for corruption and bribery.
Another is that a major advertiser is suspected of corrupt employment practices or, worse, polluting a major water source.
Back in 2000, the Pew Research Center and the Columbia Journalism Review conducted a survey of nearly 300 journalists and news executives and the bottom line was that “self-censorship is commonplace in the news media today.” Newsworthy stories have been purposely avoided and the reporters acknowledged they softened the tone of stories to benefit the interests of their news organizations. Forty-one percent admitted they engaged in either or both of these practices and that they conceded to being concerned over commercial and competitive pressures. These pressures lead to “good stories all too frequently are not pursued”. And that was 15 years ago.
A 2014 academic article was more alarmist in tone. M. Murat Yesil, assistant professor at Turkey’s Necmettin Erbakan University, wrote that “self-censoring practices of journalists put the future of journalism into danger… [such] practices may be threatening the future of journalism.” This past week, Spanish journalists are claiming a new law that protects police officers from having their photographs published will encourage self-censorship.
Market pressures, to be fair, could be when stories are thought to be too boring or complicated or their appeal is not enough to be newsworthy.
Space and time can affect the placement of stories or whether they appeal at all. But there lurks, even in the media, the “watchdog of democracy,” factors that will prevent a story from appearing or will provide it a special spin.
Among factors that lead to self-censorship, the report highlighted a reporter’s conscious decision to do so either so as not to harm a source, to protect a colleague, to improve one’s professional standing in the eyes of fellow journalist or for a career boost. Haaretz this week published a team investigative report on the gifts, in clothes and jewelry, that fashion reporters and their editors allegedly receive to promote certain labels. Over a decade ago, Israel’s Media Watch published out findings on the free flights and hospitality that tourism reporters were receiving to influence their writing.
It is fair to ask whether two major newspapers, Yediot Aharonot and Israel Hayom, are suffering from problems that may lead to self-censorship.
Our well-researched assumption from years of review is that the former is very anti-Likud and almost pathologically anti- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while the latter is at the other end of the spectrum, being consistently sympathetic to Netanyahu and his policies.
The mainstream media has been lax, both the pro- and the anti-Netanyahu press, claims Yoav Yitzhak in a November 29 report at his News1 web site on whether Sara Netanyahu had “hidden away” gifts she and her husband received, as he has published, when visiting abroad rather than handing them over to the proper government clerks responsible for their storage.
His unsourced report was quite vague, which perhaps cautioned mainstream outlets. The fact that the multiple hideaways were partially at the Netanyahus’ government- owned home also lessened its impact. Previous attempts to find the couple guilty in similar instances failed, so perhaps self-censorship over this is not so outlandish.
Netanyahu is friendly with billionaire Sheldon Adelson and so, as part of the court maneuvers of Raviv Drucker (who has been involved in a long-standing dispute, quite nasty in our opinion) and Channel 10 management, they requested the dates of the telephone conversations Netanyahu and Adelson conducted based of the Freedom of Information Act as well as those of Israel Hayom editor Amos Regev with Adelson. Judge David Mintz acceded and accepted the request although he stipulated that Adelson and Regev could plead opposition to such.
In an interview with The Seventh’s Eye Oren Persico, Drucker was pressed, being asked what such information could provide given that a similar appeal against Yediot could reveal that senior correspondent Nahum Barnea had received phone calls from Ehud Olmert.
Drucker admitted that, basically, all that could be produced was conjecture although there would be a difference between 20 and 200 calls a year. It could be asked is that fair from a journalistic ethical standard? Without the content of the phone calls, there is little value as to supposed real knowledge but, nevertheless, intimated aspersions are being cast. Is Adelson ordering Regev to publish or not publish something he wants, such as natural gas profits or what Netanyahu desires, or are they simply chatting? And should Israel Hayom report on these phone calls (and should Yediot’s owner Arnon (Noni) Mozes’s phone calls become public knowledge)? THE NATURAL GAS framework is an example to judge possible self-censorship. It is presumed that Israel Hayom has done so. However, actually, except for occasional columns by Chezi Sternlicht (a winner of IMW’s Economic Reporting Prize), its coverage was very low-key until recently and selective in its quotations from involved figures.
True, economic interests are a possible factor that could alter the way a news story is presented but are they? Barnea of Yediot Aharonot was at least honest enough to admit that his comprehension of the natural gas issue and its possible monopoly- setting clauses was insufficient but he was critical of the recent television series, “Platter of Silver,” which is promoting a very clear social-economic agenda. Shuki Tausig, nevertheless, attacked Barnea in the Seventh Eye for being demagogic in his critique in that by professing lack of knowledge while an employee of a newspaper whose owner is acknowledged as a tycoon and a friend of tycoons, Barnea was being devious and deceitful to his readers. His self-censorship was a negative one.
Timothy P. Carney, senior political columnist at The Washington Examiner, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, writing on November 11, insists that “news media bias is real.” Should we care? Yes, for reduced quality of journalism “fosters distrust among readers and viewers.” And it is “bad for democracy.”
Government intervention, indeed, is bad for the media. More importantly, unethical media intervention surely is bad for the public.
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (