Major Topics the U.S. Media Chooses to Ignore

October 6, 2008 • Ethics and Quality • by

Ethical Space, Vol. , No.3, 2008
A unique university project highlights each year the stories the US coporate media miss.
The project might be overshadowed by the Pulitzer Prizes, which are bestowed every year in April – but in terms of media policy it may well be the more important event: once a year, Project Censored, organised by the Sonoma State University in California, chooses 25 ‘stories’ which, according to its jury, have substantial news value but which nevertheless remain ignored by the large US newspapers and TV networks.

As a case in point, the jury criticised in its last report, Censored 2008, the US media’s failure to report appropriately on the erosion of human rights and civil liberties in the US, as well as on certain events relating to the War in Iraq. Moreover, the jury decisions indicate how much the US mainstream media tend to neglect their foreign affairs coverage. For example, there have been hardly any reports on the activities, military and otherwise, the Bush Administration and the US Defence Department are currently engaging in on the African continent – as an answer to China’s growing influence in the region. There has been little real coverage of the new trade agreements between the EU and the US which, according to the jury, “will prove increasingly destructive to the developing countries”.The way jurors select the topics hushed up by the mainstream media is of particular interest. While everyone is invited to submit their 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. In the course of two introductory seminars, students involved in the project, instead of writing their usual papers or answering exam questions, compile the dossiers which will serve the jury as a basis for its decisions. To decide on the merits of a particular topic, students have to do their own research, above all verifying if a story has truly never been picked up by the major media.

The final decision is made by a jury which consists of many illustrious – if predominantly left-leaning – members. One doesn’t even have to share all of their (sometimes simplistic) views of “corporate journalism“ to appreciate the criticism they provide year after year, as an important stimulus for further discussions.

According to sociology professor Peter Phillips, who has 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 simply be impossible to find out whether a story really 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 US 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 one of the more important national media. Despite this qualification, Laufer still underlines the merits of Project Censored: “It helps improve journalistic standards and it makes people understand how easily journalism can be manipulated.”

The project’s greatest impact comes from the publication of its selected stories*, of which 15,000 copies are sold annually. A number that is no match to the millions sold by bestseller authors like Noam Chomsky or Neil Postman, of course, but for a specialised publication dealing with the media and journalism, this still is a remarkable achievement. The project clearly is having some effects even though Phillips complains that the large US papers, as well as specialised journals such as the Columbia Journalism Review and the American Journalism Review, choose to ignore the project . Its website, is quite a success story, generating some 30,000 hits a day, which adds up to 12 million visitors each year, as Phillips relates proudly.

In many countries, among them Canada, similar projects have been launched. Most of them, however, were only short-lived, as many initiators apparently underestimated the work that is needed to keep things going. In Germany, one project, Initiative Nachrichtenaufklärung, has survived for several years. But compared to the US original, however, it has never really taken off, remaining widely unknown even among media makers…

* Peter Phillips/Andrew Roth with Project Censored (eds.) Censored 2008. The Top 25 Censored Stories of 2006-07, New York etc.: Seven Stories Press, 2007

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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