Self-Censorship Is Still Hiding in the Closet

December 13, 2023
WatchDog Opinion banner
Self-censorship is often just as powerful as government censorship in stifling a free press, writes WatchDog. Above, shredded newspaper. Photo: Judith E. Bell via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED).

WatchDog Opinion: Self-Censorship Is Still Hiding in the Closet

By Joseph A. Davis

Have you ever gotten a “cease-and-desist” letter from a big law firm or has a congressional committee chair ever called your boss’ boss to complain about your reporting? Or possibly you’ve been trolled on Twitter or pulled your punches on a story because your brother-in-law has a stake in it and you will see him at Thanksgiving dinner?

Then you know about self-censorship. And you know that the “chilling effect” is not at all cool.


Self-censorship is often

just as powerful as

government censorship

in stifling a free press.


Self-censorship is often just as powerful as government censorship in stifling a free press. Talking about it can be embarrassing and taboo.

So let’s talk about it.

Journalism is a fast-paced and stressful profession. Often it is all you can do to file the story on time, get it past the fact-checkers and answer angry mail from the trolls in your audience. (Don’t get us wrong: Some of our best friends are trolls.) You may take the safe, conservative approach just to avoid trouble amid crushing workloads and looming deadlines.

Self-censorship is not only as powerful as censorship brought about by fancy lawyers and jack-booted thugs — it is a crucial part of the mechanisms by which they achieve their censorship. Saves them work.


Finding the truth, then telling it

To simplify: Some of us think the job of a journalist is to figure out … not only the facts but truth and reality in a funhouse-mirror world. And to explain it in ways that engage and help people.

Sometimes “bothsidesism” is appropriate and valuable. When time is short and reality is hard to discern, flatly reporting conflicting views may be the best we can do. But often that’s not enough.

We may on a good day serve our audiences better by probing to figure out the truth. By finding the documents and receipts, by talking to the horse’s mouth. By making an informed judgment about who is lying, who is spinning, who is clueless and who is telling the truth.

And then telling the truth.

Some people (looking at you, Rupert) call themselves news media and don’t give a fig about reality. We’re not talking about them.


Some journalists have a

sense of what is real …

but they don’t always

trust themselves enough.


But some journalists have a sense of what is real, a sense based on evidence, experience, observation, data and emails. They care about reality, but they don’t always trust themselves enough.

For a long time, climate coverage was bothsidesed, because general assignment reporters — and editors even more so  — didn’t have the specialized knowledge, or trust what knowledge they had, of a complex subject. Some might even have told you it was bad journalism to let “unbalanced” science into your stories.


The ‘Fair Witness’ role

From the National Enquirer to The New York Times, journalists have different ideas of what their role is. The WatchDog is drawn to the “Fair Witness” role imagined by sci-fi author Robert Heinlein.

The Fair Witness describes just what they see — no more, no less. Asked what color a house is, the Fair Witness would say “It is white on this side,” because they could not see the other side.

But truth is not something you can “bothsides.” When the truth is knowable and known, journalists owe it to their audiences to make the call.


Sometimes, we fear,

journalists may be

gaslighting themselves.


Journalists have a duty to not self-censor. It takes clarity and courage, as well as institutional support. Sometimes, we fear, journalists may be gaslighting themselves.

Former Associated Press CEO Tom Curley, a strong advocate of press freedom, used to chide the journalists who are too fair to take their own side in a fight (to paraphrase Robert Frost). Objective news journalists are (some say) not supposed to be advocates.

Except that press freedom is something journalists can and should advocate. Years ago, the Society of Environmental Journalist’s board gave its Freedom of Information Task Force and the WatchDog a mandate to do exactly that.


How SLAPP suits stifle

Some media ethicists overstress impartiality as if it were the only value leading to good journalism. But good journalism has other values as well — lots of them. Don’t try to tell muckrakers that they should be impartial about lynchings, pedophilia or politicians at city hall with their hand in the till. Muck is muck. And it’s their job to rake it.

Over the years, the WatchDog has noticed that the people who demand both-sides coverage most loudly and aggressively are often the paid PR representatives of one side. It is as if they are exploiting journalists’ value for fairness and using it against them. Fairness is not the same thing.


One catalyst for self-censorship

is the SLAPP lawsuit, filed by an

industry or trade group to stifle

the public voice in a debate.


One catalyst for self-censorship is the SLAPP lawsuit. That’s the nickname for strategic lawsuits against public participation — filed by an industry or trade group to stifle the public voice in a debate. Sometimes they are filed against advocacy groups. Journalists get SLAPP suits, too.

SLAPP suits (or even the threat of them) raise the threat of painful financial costs for defendants, merely for the legal fees needed to defend against them. Even if defendants ultimately win. They may not be a risk for a big national paper with a large legal department, but to a small-town, family-owned paper, they are like a gun to the head. They intimidate free speech.

In response, at least 32 states and the District of Columbia have enacted anti-SLAPP statutes making such suits more difficult for companies who file them. But there is not, as of yet, a federal anti-SLAPP law. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) has drafted and introduced a bill to make one.

As fine as such a law would be for press freedom, it doesn’t seem to have much of a chance in the current House of Representatives. Maybe next year.


Threats of political violence

We live in a society where threats of political violence are increasingly the norm. Yes, journalists who tell unpopular truths are often subject to threats as well. Does it shut them up? It shouldn’t.

We were struck by the story of Des Moines TV meteorologist Chris Gloninger, who took his job hoping to talk about how climate change was affecting the weather. Then the harassment started. He now has another job.

There’s plenty of documentation of threats and actual violence against journalists in recent years. You can find a lot of it in a growing database called the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, supported by a large coalition of journalism groups. [Full Disclosure: SEJournal Editor Adam Glenn is a deputy editor at Freedom of the Press Foundation, which is the editorial lead and manages the day-to-day operations of the Press Freedom Tracker site.]

There’s a bill to address those threats, too. It’s called the Journalist Protection Act (H.R. 3121). The bill would make it a crime to assault a journalist — as well as behavior “with the intention of intimidating or impeding newsgathering by the journalist.” It’s been on the table for several years, but not passed. Some journalism groups support it.

We wonder why it hasn’t passed. It’s a well-attested fact (may require subscription) that Congress members get death threats, too.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 45. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: 
Topics on the Beat: