April 30, 2000

Self Censorship: How Often and Why

Journalists Avoiding The News

Introduction and Summary

A Survey of Journalists in Association with Columbia Journalism Review

Self-censorship is commonplace in the news media today, according to a survey of nearly 300 journalists and news executives by the Pew Research Center and the Columbia Journalism Review. About one-quarter of the local and national journalists say they have purposely avoided newsworthy stories, while nearly as many acknowledge they have softened the tone of stories to benefit the interests of their news organizations. Fully four-in-ten (41%) admit they have engaged in either or both of these practices.

The poll of 206 reporters and 81 news executives — 150 from local news outlets and 137 from national news organizations — found widespread concern over commercial and competitive pressures. As a result of these pressures, say journalists, good stories all too frequently are not pursued.

There is general agreement about the extent of the self-censorship and its principal causes. Market pressures — manifested when newsworthy stories are avoided because they are too boring or complicated — are seen as the most common factor. Majorities in the print and broadcast media acknowledge that newsworthy stories are often or sometimes avoided because of their complexity or lack of audience appeal.

Nearly eight-in-ten (77%) say stories that are seen as important but dull are often (27%) or sometimes avoided (50%). A majority (52%) also says that overly complex stories are at least sometimes ignored. Fewer but still significant percentages report that such stories are not pursued because they conflict with organizational interests. More than one-third (35%) say news that would hurt the financial interests of a news organization often or sometimes goes unreported, while slightly fewer (29%) say the same about stories that could adversely affect advertisers.

The survey highlights the difficult challenges faced by local journalists in the increasingly competitive media environment. About one-third (32%) of local reporters acknowledge they have softened the tone of a news story on behalf of the interests of their news organization; only 15% of those in the national media say they have done so. And 26% of local reporters say they have been told to avoid a story because it was dull or overly complicated, but suspect the real reason for the decision was that the story could harm their company’s financial interests. Just 2% of national reporters harbor such suspicions.

Investigative journalists, who were surveyed separately from the local and national reporters and editors, are most likely to cite the impact of business pressures on editorial decisions. Fully half of this group — drawn from members of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) — say newsworthy stories are often or sometimes ignored because they conflict with a news organization’s economic interests. More than six-in-ten (61%) believe that corporate owners exert at least a fair amount of influence on decisions about which stories to cover; 51% of local journalists and just 30% of national journalists agree. Since this group is comprised of members of IRE, and thus does not represent a cross-section of journalists, its responses are not included in the total.

Broadcasters Cite Audience Factors

The reasons for avoiding stories can be many and varied. Often, time-starved reporters say they simply do not have the opportunity to follow up on important subjects. But market forces are seen as the primary reason why worthwhile stories are not pursued, and this factor is especially prevalent in the broadcast arena.

Three-quarters of national broadcast journalists (and nearly six-in-ten of their local counterparts) say newsworthy stories are at least sometimes ignored because they are regarded as too complicated for the average person. Print journalists, both local and national, are far less likely to cite this as a factor.

In general, local journalists and news executives cite conflicts of interests — financial and otherwise — more often than their national colleagues. In particular, more local than national print reporters say stories that are damaging to the financial interests of news organizations are commonly or sometimes avoided. At the local level, print reporters and executives are about as likely as broadcast news professionals to cite this as a reason for ignoring stories. But among national journalists, broadcasters cite this as more of a factor than print reporters.

Perhaps surprisingly, peer pressure — fear of embarrassment or potential career damage — is mentioned by about half of all journalists as a factor for avoiding newsworthy stories. But the survey finds little evidence that journalists steer clear of newsworthy stories because they might aggravate community problems. Only about one-in-five (19%) of all journalists say newsworthy stories are often or sometimes avoided for this reason.

Journalists say that, typically, they do not decide on their own to avoid newsworthy stories. More than half of those who think stories are sometimes ignored (54%) say they either get signals from their bosses to avoid such stories (30%) or ignore them based on how they think their bosses would react (24%). Of those who believe newsworthy stories are being ignored to protect corporate interests, fully three-quarters say journalists get signals or anticipate negative reactions from superiors, and just 8% say journalists decide to avoid such stories completely on their own.

Suspicions, Some Unfounded

Just as journalism is often more art than science, the process of determining when, why and even whether good stories are being ignored is an imperfect one — as journalists themselves freely admit. A strong majority (58%) says that journalists at least sometimes wrongfully suspect stories are killed or buried because of conflicts of interest, when the stories in question simply lack merit.

On the other hand, the survey provides considerable evidence that at least for some journalists, there has been an unmistakable intrusion of commercial interests into newsroom decisions. For instance, about one-in-five local (20%) and national (17%) reporters say they have faced criticism or pressure from their bosses after producing or writing a piece that was seen as damaging to their company’s financial interests.

Overall, journalists have a more pessimistic attitude toward their profession than in the Pew Research Center’s last major poll of journalists in early 1999. More local journalists report influence by corporate owners and advertisers in decisions on which stories to cover. And on the question of whether the media does a good job of informing the public, both local and national journalists give themselves poorer marks than last year.

At that time, about half of national (49%) and local (55%) journalists said the news business did a good or excellent job of balancing journalism’s twin goals of telling the public what it wants to know and what it needs to know. Now, only 37% of national journalists and 35% of local journalists give the profession high marks, with majorities in both groups saying the media does only a fair job at this crucial task.

For the first time, the Center’s survey of journalists was conducted online over the Internet. This survey is based on a representative sample of 287 working journalists, editors and news managers, drawn from several media directories. In addition, 90 members of the IRE were also interviewed. The majority of these journalists (243 out of 287) took the survey online. In addition, follow-up mailings and telephone calls were used to encourage participation and, when necessary, to complete interviews by phone or mail. A complete description of the methodology follows.

Cite this publication: “Self Censorship: How Often and Why.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April 30, 2000) http://www.people-press.org/2000/04/30/self-censorship-how-often-and-why/, accessed on July 22, 2014.