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The threat of self-censorship: Often intangible, but still important to address


by Diana Day, Academic Tech Coordinator, Portal Content Director, US Newspaper Adviser Moorestown Friends School

As scholastic journalism advisers, prevention of overt censorship from school administration is at the forefront of our fight for scholastic press rights  – and should be.  But in a scholastic setting, self-censorship is also a problem, arguably even more common than direct censorship. Whether caused by the chilling effects of previous censorship, by the pressure of prior review or by fear of judgment or reprisal from peers or teachers, self-censorship is an on-going threat to a free and open press and is worthy of discussion with your staff. 

Graphic by Diana Day; Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Self-censorship is not a new phenomenon and is included as one of seven categories used annually to measure press freedom in 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders. In “The Inevitable Problem of Self-Censorship,” John K. Wilson recently described self-censorship on campus as “a problem that’s almost impossible to survey, difficult to quantify and hard to prevent,” but went on to say we can still “try to create conditions that reduce the destructive kind of self-censorship and encourage free expression.”

Make time to talk to your staff and ask them about self-censorship. Have them think about why they might kill a story before it even makes it to a pitch meeting and then ask them to think about how we might address the problems.

Below are some ideas from my staff. Of note is fear of disciplinary action wasn’t as much of a concern as the following:

  1. Fear of judgment or pushback from fellow students and faculty; afraid of what the advisers might think of certain ideas, stories, or opinions.
  2. Wondering if a particular story is too taboo for a school setting.
  3. Concern the story won’t be timely enough or that it won’t make it through the reporting and editing process quickly enough.  Staffers said they don’t want to work hard only to have a story killed because it’s no longer relevant. 
  4. As private school students with the knowledge the school depends on tuition revenue, they are aware of the school’s marketing efforts and don’t want the school to be seen in a negative light.

The staff had some interesting ideas about how to address these problems:

  1. Seeing examples of past articles by our newspaper that were controversial, taboo or complicated to report and hearing the behind-the-scenes accounts of how they came together and the community response to them.
  2. Working to establish a non-judgmental climate and support for each other.
  3. Continue lessons and conversations about press rights and the importance of covering difficult topics.

My takeaways:

  1. The request to see examples of past work reminds me that while I’ve advised the paper for 13 years, the students haven’t been on the staff for 13 years.  Staffers do need to see lots of examples of past work, and they can benefit and even gain courage from the context in which those stories were reported.  They could also benefit from sharing examples of courageous reporting from youth journalists everywhere.
  2. Problems or delays in the editing workflow can prevent good stories from coming to the surface – we need to keep working on our editing process to smooth out the rough patches so no student is worried about working on a difficult story only to see it expire.
  3. Self-censorship clearly happens.  Our youth journalists know what is holding them back and have good ideas about how to address these blocks.