An editor at a Danish newspaper invites cartoonists to have a go at the Prophet Muhammad because he thinks they're practicing self-censorship. Publication of the cartoons provokes outrage in the Muslim world. News media outlets that try to cover the controversy without displaying the cartoons themselves take heat for practicing self-censorship.

 

A few years ago, many campus newspapers rejected ads from a group that claimed the Holocaust never happened. The group claimed it was the victim of censorship. On my own campus, a student who was dropped from the rotation of columnists at the student paper after he complained about how his work was edited, then complained that he was being censored.

 

What are all these people talking about?

 

Censorship is defined here as government suppression of expression. The only meaningful application of the term self-censorship is to a situation where people silence themselves or their employees rather than risk a government crackdown. In the journalism world, any other form of information withholding is an exercise of news judgment, not censorship.

 

Though no one is quite this systematic about it, editors prioritize the news the way Stephen Covey's "highly effective people" prioritize their time: Stories that are important and interesting are the likeliest to get in the paper. Then come stories that are important but maybe not all that interesting. Next are the stories that are interesting but maybe not all that important and last, the stories that are so unimportant and uninteresting that they are unlikely to receive coverage on even the slowest news days.

 

But a couple of other variables complicate matters. One is the national security issue. Notwithstanding all the squawking about the "treasonous" publication of information about government tracking of personal financial transactions in The New York Times and other papers, most responsible news organizations will, as Times editor Bill Keller and Los Angeles Times editor Dean Paquet avowed in a co-written piece in July, voluntarily withhold sensitive information whose publication may do more harm than good.

 

The other variable that may lead a news organization to withhold news is the presence of tasteless or offensive content. For all the talk of sensationalism in the news, mainstream newspapers remain extremely reluctant to offend their readers.

 

"As a disseminator of the news," owner Eugene Meyer told readers of the Washington Post in 1935, "the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman. What it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as for the old." To which editor Benjamin Bradlee added, in the 1989 edition of the Post's in-house style manual: "These principles are re-endorsed herein."

 

Material that is not considered fit reading for the young as well as for the old mostly consists of material that is considered profane, vulgar or obscene. Less long-standing and less-codified taboos restrict the publication of ethnic or racial slurs and other forms of hate speech. Radio and television broadcasts (not cable or satellite) also must follow FCC restrictions-or face monetary sanctions-on "indecent" content.

 

None of these prohibitions is absolute, as we well know. The New York Times in-house style manual cites the vulgarity-laden transcripts of taped White House conversations about the Watergate scandal as examples of material that was published "because of the light they shed on news matters of utmost importance." More recently, a similar standard was applied to the steamier excerpts of the Starr report on Bill Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, and to President Bush's profane comment to British Prime Minister Tony Blair this summer about the need for Syria to lean on Hezbollah.

 

In other words, even in this permissive age, most offensive material is probably not going to make it into the paper if it's merely interesting; it has to also be important. As a practical matter, if editors are going to get calls from offended readers, they want to be able to say, "We knew some people would be offended by this material but after agonizing about it, we decide to publish it because we thought it was important." They don't want to say, lamely, "We didn't think about whether people would be offended" or, "We thought people might be offended, but sensationalism sells papers."

 

One can argue about whether newspapers in general are too permissive or too prudish, or about whether this or that story is important enough to justify making an exception to the rules governing offensive content. In the case of the Muhammad cartoons, one can argue about whether descriptions of their content suffice to explain what the ruckus is about. The point is that editors make these kinds of judgments every day. Self-censorship has nothing to do with it. It is a matter of news values.

 

It should not have to be said that freedom of the press includes the right not to publish. Holocaust deniers and disgruntled ex-columnists who claim their First Amendment rights are being violated when a newspaper rejects their offerings have it exactly backwards: If the newspaper were somehow required to publish ads or freelance submissions from every quarter, it would be the newspaper whose First Amendment rights were being trampled. The Holocaust deniers have the right to speak. Our student columnist can scribble to his heart's content. But the newspaper has the right to ignore both of them.

 

The distinction between the exercise of judgment and the practice of censorship is important for one simple reason: If we start getting the idea that censorship and self-censorship happen routinely, we may shrug our shoulders when the wolf is really at the newsroom door.

 

Russell Frank teaches journalism ethics at Penn State University. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.8,38.