News / 08.06.2011

The unspoken subject of self-censorship

Recently a Finnish newspaper journalist wrote a column in which he appealed for tolerance from Finns towards immigrants.

The column caused a flood of negative feedback. Anti-immigrant groups attacked the journalist in large numbers in Homma-foorumi and other websites.

The journalist was heavily criticized and his personal matters were displayed all over the internet.

He says he will no longer write about irritating immigration-critical issues.

“It is not nice to get mud splashed over oneself”. It hurts and feels bad even though one knows the background of those behind it. I felt frightened also for my children. From the writings, it emerged that they know who I am and who my children are.”

 

“I don’t want to hurt”

Finnish journalists censor themselves and end up being censored by their bosses, numerous interviews provided to Journalisti Magazine show. 

Journalists abandon their subjects and their points of view and slant stories not only by themselves, but also due to pressures emanating from their own superiors.

According to journalists, fear of the possible unpleasant consequences caused by the publication of story is one factor which causes self-censorship. A senior journalist recounts how he had exercised self-censorship when working in a crisis area in which a humanitarian organization had internal disputes.

”If I had reported them in the news, it would have had a big significance on the willingness of the readers to donate to that organization which, however, I thought was doing a job”. I still don’t know whether I acted properly in the circumstances”.

 A third journalist on his part says that he does not want to write critical stories about Islam because   he “does not want to hurt, the Finnish or international Islamic community”.

In practice any given subject is censorable if in some way it is sensitive or somehow controversial.

Journalists say they become extra cautions when writing stories for example, about the True Finns Party, drugs or about negative issues which are related to their employers.

 

Indirect pressure from sources

Censorship also stems from the journalists’ need to protect and desire to maintain good relations with the source.

A journalist deleted information provided by an interviewee from a story at the editing stage at the request of an interviewee because according to him, publication of the story would have caused him problems.

”Many censor their own stories. When for example a story is submitted for editing it can be tidied up at the request of the interviewee. If a source is important it is worth considering whether to be flexible in order to be granted an interview also in the future”, says the journalist.

Another journalist says he knows his contact a little too well that he believes he writes positive reviews of his music records.

“I have done reviews for such a long time that a large number of the artistes, record company executives and producers are at least, acquaintances. I don’t consciously leave out anything unsaid but it may happen unconsciously without realizing it. The critique becomes toothless.”

Also the management of the newspaper can require journalists to leave out certain things.

The management of one Media House has of late begun to fear particularly litigation-prone groups and the bosses have started to censor sensitive stories, says a journalist who works for that media.

”Facts verified by the journalist are not believed and there arises a desire to censor sections of the story of which the subject has complained just to be sure. It does not help no matter how you clarify and explain your investigation and the facts. From the point of view work, it is really frustrating”.

The journalist is afraid that the power to decide the contents of stories is gradually being shifted out of the editorial offices. 

”When it becomes widely noticed from outside that the stories can be influenced by threatening, then it is lost”, he says,

According to another journalist, the attitude of the editor of his former newspaper to reports on drugs stiffened considerably when the pupils of the local school were caught on drug offenses and the paper had story on The Netherland’s liberal law on cannabis.

There was a considerable avalanche of feedback from the story, and even the mayor of the town sent an angry email for writing a story from such a perspective. After that the editor said, that “we will no longer publish anything positive in connection with drugs”. In my opinion it wasn’t anything positive, it only described how different things are in some other countries than in Finland”. 

An award-winning and experienced journalist on his part told of how he was forced to abandon issues, points of view and his way of handling things due to demands by his superior.

”As a rule self-censorship is not from oneself but from the reproaches and threats of superiors”, the journalist says.

He has experienced censorship as extremely disgusting and says that he has been afraid of the bosses' feedback on the wrong type of writing.

”Irrespective of  how firm one’s sense of justice and view of journalistic ethics is, a human being does not want to continuously live in stress and cannot do it wouldn’t fall ill but will rather will have to occasionally yield to  demands of bosses”.

The self-imposed censorship of journalists and the censorship practised by the bosses were revealed in both big and smaller media houses in the metropolitan area and in the provinces. That was recounted by both young and experienced journalists.

To several of the interviewees self-censorship was so difficult that none of those who talked about wanted to appear in the story in their own name. 

“Even talking about self-censorship anonymously proved more difficult and more painful than expected, says one journalist who had exercised self-censorship.

 

Censorship is not an all-around affair

However, uncensored journalism is also practised in Finland. Many interviewees say that they have never censored themselves or have not got into a situation in which the boss would have asked to smooth the story.

A certain well known journalist in his career says that it has never even occurred to him to consider censoring information when there has been sufficient evidence.

News which is also annoying from the point of view of one’s own media house has been put out with the editor's giving instructions which say, ‘in that case there mustn’t be a single mistake’. 

According to him, not a single media house can leave big news stories unpublished because they will be made public in any case.

 ”The censoring would be really embarrassing to a self-respecting journalist, – and eventually would eat away the whole business idea of the mass media”.

 

Censorship damages the credibility of journalism

Censorship leads to the crumbling of the credibility of journalism, says Risto Uimonen the chairman of the Council of Mass media in Finland.

”The power to decide the contents of a news story must not be given to forces outside the editorial office. If that happens it erodes the credibility of the media in question, at least, in the eyes of those who know what has taken place. If the one piling the pressure gets his wishes through the word will spread”.

According to Uimonen, a self-censoring journalist should reflect whether he is in the right field or in the right job. According to the Journalisti's guidelines, the journalist is responsible to the public whose right it is to know what takes place in the society.

”Self-censorship of a journalist or of the management of the news media’ means that the media house is tinkering with its responsibilities”

Uimonen also reflects on whether those journalists who spoke anonymously about their experiences are exceptionally sensitive to exercise self-censorship and to think about the concerns of their superiors possible concerns about the content of stories.

”It can be asked whether they are reacting too sensitively to the comments of their superiors. If a journalist believes in his story and the facts hold, it is his duty to also defend the story inside the house although the final decision always remains with the chief editor”.

Self-censorship is not a new phenomenon in Finnish journalism. . Earlier some of the difficult subjects have been for example in foreign policy issues, relations to the top leadership of the government, doping and Nokia, says Risto Uimonen.

There should be continues discussions about the rules governing editorial activities in the media houses, so that journalists do not have to stoop down unnecessarily or act in ignorance, says Uimonen.

“Journalists have the right to fend off every kind pressure which is used in an attempt to limit the dissemination of information”, he says.

Translated and edited by Linus Atarah

Orginal story by Jessikka Aro: http://www.journalistiliitto.fi/journalisti/lehti/2011/11/artikkelit/vaietut-aiheet/


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