Is Journalistic Self-Censorship a Big Problem?

By Keith Kloor | May 19, 2014 1:53 pm

The London Based SciDevNet, which is “committed to putting science at the heart of global development,” has an interesting post up today entitled, “Is science journalism ignoring censorship?”

The questions raised by the author, Nick Ishmael Perkins, are first discussed in the context of traditional censorship issues, such as when governments restrict access to information. This is fairly straightforward.

What is more vexing and hard to quantify is the problem of self-censorship, or what Perkins calls “low level censorship” that, for science journalists, is experienced at mundane or bureaucratic levels. He writes:

There are also the frequent requests by sources for story approval before publication when they agree to talk. Many will argue that this is barely censorship — just caution borne out of experience of inaccurate reporting of complex technical interviews by journalists. This is an understandable point, but to avoid stepping onto a slippery slope, only editors should approve stories.

Self-censorship is also common practice among science journalists. If you anticipate that your attempts to cover a story might result in alienation, or reprimand, from the expert sources you depend on or the media outlet that pays you, then you may have to make a judgement call about that problem relative to society’s need to know. Faced with such decisions, it is unsurprising that journalists will often choose to maintain their professional position and their livelihoods, or to avoid working with certain editors whose stance they disagree with.

The broad claim that “self-censorship is common practice among science journalists” strikes me as very unfair. But nor would I breezily dismiss such a concern. In the fields that I often write about, such as climate change and biotechnology, there is no doubt in my mind that some environmental and science journalists practice various forms of self-censorship, for a host of reasons, some which may be political or ideological. And yes, alienating sources is an occupational hazard. But this is the case for reporters on all beats.

I also think that some journalists try to tiptoe around the minefield surrounding anything related to climate change and GMOs. Can you blame them?

  • realheadline

    “I also think that some journalists try to tiptoe around the minefield surrounding anything related to climate change and GMOs.”

    Interesting, can you put a percentage on this observation? By tiptoe, do you mean they would avoid printing anything that could offend left-leaning Green organisations?

    • Viva La Evolucion

      I think maybe he means that a journalist might avoid printing anything that could offend both Green Organizations and/or fossil fuel/agribusiness such as Koch Industries, Monsanto, or organizations/politicians these corporations pay money to. Also in regards to “A particularly insidious form of self-censorship is the reliance on user-friendly texts supplied by lobbyist or public relations specialists.” I think that hit the nail on it’s head.

  • JH

    I was just thinking about this the other day. Journalists treat politicians and scientists in shockingly different ways. A politician is often subjected to confrontational questioning bordering on rudeness. A scientists is rarely challenged on anything. They’re just asked to tell their story, after which the the journalist nods knowingly.

    When covering a political story, journalists dig up some data, draw some conclusion and pull together the story, then go to various individuals with questions, giving them a chance to respond to the story. The basic idea is that the journalist is going to publish the story, comment or no.

    In science, MSM journalists rarely draw their own conclusions from the data. There’s no “here’s my story, I’m going public, would you like to comment”, it’s “how would you like the story to appear?”

    Why don’t journalists challenge scientists more often?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Well, for starters, the two cultures–political and science journalism–are different. There are also science journalists cut from the cloth that you seem to yearn for, such as Gina Kolata of NYT.

      More broadly speaking, this dated book is still relevant:
      http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/8560/title/The-Scoop-on-Science-Journalism/

      • JH

        Thanks for the link. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be working. Can’t even access the site “the-scientist.com”, although it does show up in Google.

        I think its safe to say the cultures are different! IMO, many science journalists are sort of, er, how do I say this nicely – lets call them “scientist admirers,” or science enthusiasts. Far more inclined to cheer leading than to sorting through the nuts and bolts to see what’s going on underneath the headlines.

        I don’t think challenging scientists is appropriate for every story. Daily news is just that: reporting what’s been said or claimed – although even that needs more context and discussion of competing ideas, however brief.

        But feature stories and interviews need more direct challenging.

        And I don’t mean this just in reference to climate science. It’s all across science. the interesting thing is that the scientist admiration that goes on in the MSM is quite at odds with what goes on in graduate student offices. That would be a great way to get the inside scoop on a scientist – talk h/her grad students, or to the people that share an office with h/her grad students.

        • JH

          Now here’s an interesting thought:

          Almost every PhD student I’ve known had at least one significant issue with h/her advisors’ scientific work, and often they have many.

          Interestingly, almost none of the leading “alarmist” climate scientists are full time faculty. OK, some -
          perhaps all – of them are adjuncts, but most (Mann is the only one I can think of right off hand that’s a full time faculty member) are primarily researchers. They don’t have significant PhD student advisory responsibilities, so they don’t have crowds of hungry young PhDs constantly questioning them.

          That’s kind of interesting.

  • Jeffn

    Probably useful to draw a distinction between the “science” beat and the “environmental” beat. Many MSM organizations had both and the environmental reporter isn’t necessarily a science reporter.
    Why the distinction? “The Environment” was (still is) a recognized issue that has specific legislation and advocacy groups all of which are local as well as federal and international. Here in Virginia, the “environment beat” included everything from Save the Bay activities to mining issues, fisheries, river health, etc etc. Science included the work Virginia Tech does in driverless cars, the stuff coming out of Nova’s mini-silicon valley, UVA’s medical advances etc.
    It’s only since the recession in newspapers that some papers (foolishly in my opinion) considered environment and science beats to be one in the same and this mostly because the advocacy groups scream bloody murder if you cut back on coverage of them. This coverage is, afterall, the only way they stay in business.

  • Ray Del Colle

    “Climate change is happening now. Just ask 97% of the top climate scientists & every major National Academy of Science in the world.” http://clmtr.lt/c/HGW0cc0cMJ

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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