Should the media censor?

By Tyler Vincent

The amount of war coverage the American press is allowed to report on has changed with each war.

During World War II, press restrictions were tightened to the point where the first pictures of dead American troops were not published until 1943. Things changed during the Vietnam conflict as press access to raw information reached new heights. The Persian Gulf War marked yet another change when press content was scrutinized by military censors.

And now, with the nation engaged in the war on terrorism, journalists may have to come to grips with the question of censorship, both by military leaders and lawmakers and by themselves.

“What I am seeing is journalists imposing self-censorship on themselves, and in some ways, that’s a good thing,” said Dr. Brian Thornton, an NIU associate professor of communication. “Journalists sometimes get too aggressive and too cocksure of themselves, saying ‘I know this!’”

He added that the way the media reports on the current situation could change under different circumstances.

“In Japan, during WWII, we knew they had a capital city and we knew where they were at,” Thornton said. “Now, the enemy is everywhere. It’s going to be interesting to see what the press can cover.”

Though Thornton, for the most part, is happy with the restraint shown by the media thus far in their coverage of military actions, he expressed concern at the amount of self-censorship being implemented by various newspapers.

“They say that truth is the first casualty of war, but now it feels like the First Amendment is the first casualty,” Thornton said, referring to columnists Dan Guthrie, of the Daily Courier in Grant’s Pass, Ore., and Tom Gutting, of the Texas City Sun, in Texas City, Texas. Both were dismissed from their papers for writing columns that were openly critical of President George W. Bush.

“It is up to them [military leaders and lawmakers] to keep whatever is classified classified,” said Brian Adams, WDBK 94.9 FM’s news director, adding that it’s also up to journalists who might accidentally stumble upon something that might threaten the lives of civilians and the military to use caution.

“There’s an old saying from World War II: ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships,’” Adams said.

Adams also believes that while press restrictions may be heavy in this conflict, it will not completely prevent information from leaking out.

“Restrictions make it inconvenient, but they don’t stop coverage,” Adams said. “There will always be loopholes where you can get the information.”

Susan Stephens, news director for Northern Public Radio station WNIJ 89.5 FM, said that while she would ask probing questions of military officials and lawmakers, she would apply a level of self-censorship in wartime coverage.

“We’re supposed to get the truth,” she said. “But if I had a piece of information that could endanger the lives of people, then I would probably hold it.”

Stephens also expressed concern at the questionable handling of media impartiality.

“One thing that bothers me about this is the names on TV — ‘America Fights Back’ and all that,” Stephens said. “We can do whatever we feel we need to do to support our country. But when we are on the air, we are talking about the U.S., not us.”