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US journalists are self-censoring their work

By Brendon Bosworth

This year, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified documents about digital spying, we’ve come to learn that big brother is definitely watching. As revelations about the National Security Agency and the US’s massive digital spying regime continue to surface it’s become increasingly clear that the majority of digital communications are anything but private.

A common analogy is that one should now think of emails as “postcards” that can be read by anyone instead of letters sealed in envelopes that only the recipient can view.

The reality of digital surveillance and its scope is starting to hit American writers who, according to a new report by PEN America, are beginning to censor themselves, either through being reluctant to write about certain topics or being reluctant to contact sources they believe they will put in danger.

As the report (based on a survey of 520 writers) highlights, 1 in 6 of the writers surveyed avoided writing or speaking on a topic they thought would subject them to surveillance. Writers reported self-censoring on subjects “including military affairs, the Middle-East, North Africa region, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, and criticism of the US government.”

One respondent explained how the extra precautions taken to protect sources, like meeting in person instead of talking over the phone, “remind me of my days as Moscow bureau chief of [a major news outlet] under Communism, when to communicate with dissidents and refuseniks we had to avoid substantive phone conversations, meet in person in public, etc”.

Censorship strangles intellectual thought and limits oppositional viewpoints. When journalists and writers start to steer clear of difficult topics, either for fear of their own safety or that of their sources, public understanding suffers.

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