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Environment

Is Journalistic Self-Censorship a Big Problem?

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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?

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