Enlightenment About the Unenlightened

December 1, 2008 • Ethics and Quality • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, October 31, 2008
Utilizing an elaborate selection process, American researchers annually identify 25 news topics they consider underreported in mainstream media.
Project Censored, a program organised by Sonoma State University in California, calls upon a jury to select 25 news stories which have substantial news value but remain ignored by large U.S. newspapers and TV networks.

The most recent report, Censored 2009, makes the public aware of the fact that no one knows exactly how many lives the Iraq War has claimed. According to Censored 2009, estimates vary widely.  In 2007, British polling institute Opinion Research Business surveyed more than 2,400 adults in 15 of 18 Iraqi provinces and arrived, by extrapolation, at a death toll of 1.2 million victims lost since the war’s inception. In October 2006, the British medical journal Lancet published a Johns Hopkins University study vetted by four independent sources that counted 655,000 dead. According to the Associated Press, a minimum of 27,500 Iraqis died in 2005 and 2006 due to war-related violence. The U.S. military claims it does not keep count, which seems surprising as General Petraeus reported to Congress last fall that civilian deaths in all categories have declined by over 45 percent within the last nine months. Project Censored’s jury expressed astonishment at how little attention the most recent estimate received from the media.
In an earlier examination, the jury investigated the U.S. media’s failure to accurately report on certain events pertaining to the War in Iraq, but also emphasized the erosion of human rights and civil liberties in the U.S.
While the project was run by Sonoma State University for many years, it has recently expanded considerably. Twenty-four colleges are now participating.
Jurors select the overlooked news topics in an interesting fashion. While everyone is invited to submit suggestions, for a story to be considered it must have appeared in at least one medium – be it a specialised publication, a website or an alternative magazine like Mother Jones. Through the course of two introductory seminars, rather than writing the usual papers or answering exam questions, students involved in the project compile dossiers that will serve as basis for the jury’s decisions. To decide on the merits of a particular topic, students must do their own research, above all verifying whether a story has truly never been picked up by the major media.
The final news story selection is made by a jury consisting of many illustrious – if predominantly left-leaning – members. One doesn’t need to share  views of  “corporate journalism“ to appreciate the criticisms provided year after year.  Criticisms, which, incidentally, serve as important stimuli for further discussion.
According to sociology professor Peter Phillips, who headed the project for a number of years, the Internet has had a major impact on the project, mainly by giving rise to a sort of “counter-public sphere.” Many stories his jury deals with are taken from the Web, and without the archives and search engines of Lexus-Nexus and Google, it would be simply impossible to discern whether a story has been treated by the mainstream media or not.
“Strictly speaking, the whole thing should be called Project Underreported,” says Peter Laufer, a journalist who is also an attentive observer of California’s media scene. For the U.S. doesn’t have a state-run censorship office. Of course, the 25 topics that are selected each year all have appeared somewhere – but just not in the mainstream national media. Despite this qualification, Laufer still stresses the merits of Project Censored: “It helps improve journalistic standards and it makes people understand how easily journalism can be manipulated.”
Though Phillips complains that large U.S. papers and specialised journals such as the Columbia Journalism Review and the American Journalism Review choose to ignore the project, it is clearly making waves. Project Censored’s greatest achievement can be seen in the publication of its selected news stories, of which 15,000 copies are sold annually. The number can’t match those of  bestselling authors like Noam Chomsky or Neil Postman, of course, but for a specialised publication dealing with the media and journalism, this remains a remarkable feat. Its website, www.projectcensored.org , is a success as well.  The site generates roughly 30,000 hits a day, which translates to 12 million visitors each year, Phillips relates with pride.
In many countries, Canada included, similar projects have been launched. Most of them, however, were short-lived, as many initiators apparently underestimated the work needed to keep things going. In Germany, a project called Initiative Nachrichtenaufklärung has survived for several years. Compared to the U.S. original, however, it hardly took off, remaining widely unknown even among media makers.
By Stephan Russ-Mohl
Peter Phillips/Andrew Roth with Project Censored (eds.): Censored 2009. The Top 25 Censored Stories ode 2007-8, New York u.a.: Seven Stories Press. 2008
Translation: Oliver Heinemann
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