They Don’t Want You To Know

When they opened their convention kits in Ottawa earlier this month, the 350 delegates to the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Journalists were presented with a record of their professional delinquency. Amid the usual conference bumpf was a communiqué from an outfit called Project Censored Canada, trumpeting the “top 10 under-reported stories of 1993″ – stories that should have received widespread coverage, it was claimed, but that curiously did not.

Think about it: a news release denouncing news coverage, delivered to newshounds from across the country, and therefore designed to generate news. Add to that the fact that the outfit criticizing the priorities of Canadian journalism is sponsored by the Canadian Association of Journalists and you get an idea of how complicated things are becoming out there in media-land.

Modelled on an American initiative that has been in operation for 17 years, Project Censored Canada is a joint venture of the CAJ and the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University.

For eight months, researchers solicited nominations for neglected new stories from community groups, campuses and newsrooms across the country. Students at Simon Fraser examined the 111 suggestions received and assembled a top-20 list. A blue-ribbon panel of 18 academics, journalists and public figures – including Sharon Carstairs, June Callwood and Lise Bissonette, publisher of Le Devoir – then selected the final top 10.

The project’s quasi-empirical trappings (a team of university researchers “verifying” the nominations), along with the status of the judges who lent their names and therefore their reputations to the enterprise, were to stamp the study with the seal of legitimacy, so ensuring that its findings could not be dismissed.

The idea was twofold. First, it was supposed to demonstrate that the news media develop convenient cataracts when it comes to reporting on stories that inconvenience some power structures. Second, it was intended to shame the media into mending their ways by publicly brandishing evidence of their dereliction of duty. Hence the need for a publicity stunt on the order of Blackwell’s annual “worst-dressed” list, because without the oxygen of media coverage, no one can hear you scream.

If all Project Censored accomplished was to show how partial and almost arbitrary the mainstream news agenda actually is, the effort would be worth it. Certainly, space and time limitations in newspapers and newscasts mean that not all stories can be covered, but the implicit contract between the media and their audiences is that anything that fails to make it into the news has been excluded on the grounds that it’s not sufficiently important.

The merit of Project Censored is that it reminds us that importance is often in the eye of the beholder. News judgment is based on a set of shared professional conventions, and if those conventions were altered only slightly the picture of the world that unfolds in the daily press might be very different.

So far, so good. But without ever explicitly saying so, Project Censored would have us believe that our current system of news selection is in thrall to powerful government and corporate interests – interests that police what the media report so as to engineer a compliant public. After all, if the journalists themselves (the CAJ, sponsor of the project) believe the public isn’t getting the news it should, exactly whose fault do they think that is? Presumably, it’s the fault of unseen nefarious forces that control the newsroom agenda.

Suddenly, we’ve entered the dank domain of the conspiracy theory – the preserve of the naive and the happily paranoid.

For the study to carry real clout its “under-reported” stories would have to be knock-down indictments of a blinkered and subservient press. In truth, they’re far from it. Most of them, in fact, are common knowledge.

According to Project Censored, the most under-reported items of the year include: that NAFTA was largely negotiated behind closed doors, and that it amounts to “a new economic constitution for North America”; that corporate Canada has been trying to defang the environmental movement by putting on its own environmental happy face; that “the B.C. forestry dispute continues to escalate”; that the Canadian peacekeeping image is “questionable”; that there are “corporate ties to political power”; that Canadian companies do business with some pretty nasty regimes, particularly Indonesia’s; that some rich folks benefited from the Tories’ decision to revamp the capital-gains rule; and that Canadian mismanagement is probably as much at fault in the collapse of the cod fisheries as are foreign trawlers.

If any of this stuff is news to you, it’s not because the relevant facts have been kept from the public.  You just haven’t been paying attention.

Even the project’s top censored news story of the year isn’t actually a story, because it hasn’t been shown to be true. It’s a suspicion. It is the suggestion that the United Nations relief effort in Somalia might well have been motivated by the presence of oil in the region. If that were true, it would indeed be a major news story. But until the hard facts are in, it’s just an intriguing hypothesis.

All this begs the question of how the Simon Fraser researchers came to believe that their top-10 list provides evidence of a negligent press. And the only possible answer is that they saw what they wanted to see. Canadian culpability in the collapse of the cod fisheries, for example, is an element embedded in scores of stories on the subject. But if it wasn’t specifically mentioned in the headline, it slipped below the radar of the researchers’ computer title searches and therefore appeared to be “under-reported.”

Project Censored itself is misnamed, because censorship suggests an authoritarian hand at work, deliberately throttling public speech. But all the stories on the project’s top-10 list were published, in more than one place, and often in prominent (not to say mainstream) papers such as the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. It’s not as though there has been a concerted effort to suppress them. It’s just that the stories didn’t receive the play the researchers thought they deserved.

The name of the project, however, is crucial to its bid for publicity. Project Underplayed doesn’t have quite the requisite ring.

What’s really going on here is that members of the political left are complaining that the mainstream news agenda doesn’t conform to their priorities. Fair enough, although the political right could no doubt say much the same thing. But in its zeal to score political points, Project Censored manages to obscure the truth of matters.

There’s probably no shortage of under-reported stories in this country, but they are likely stories from the regions that failed to make it to the national stage because of an increasing centralization of news-gathering, or they are stories from Quebec that failed to capture the attention of anglophone Canada (or vice versa). And there is certainly censorship abroad in the land, but it is practiced by Canada Customs, not by newspaper publishers.eg

Globe and Mail April 22, 1994