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de Uriarte: Newsrooms’ Censorship by Omission

Key Quote from this IM Interview with Dr. Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte:

Given the track record historically of censorship by omission …and the ongoing distortion of news about minority populations, leaders and issues, the mono-perspective content, the press has long failed its mission to inform.

Dr. Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, an associate professor at the University of Texas, Austin, makes the case in this IM Interview that “there’s not much intellectual diversity in the newsroom.” Indeed, her argument, backed by research, is that newsrooms are culturally anti-intellectual and that journalism classrooms have lots of room for improvement too.

I decided to do an IM Interview with de Uriarte after she gave me an earful about the title of our year long project Journalism and the Public: Restoring the Trust.

She has a had a long productive academic and professional career, including eight years at the Los Angeles Times, where she was an assistant editor of the Opinion section and a staff writer on urban affairs. In 2003 she was co-author of a major study entitled Diversity Disconnects: From Class Room to News Room. So let’s get started.

Leonard Witt: Normally I start these interviews with a real time question, but in this case I am going to backup in time to when I asked you to be a moderator for one of our Journalism and the Public: Restoring the Trust conference panels. Here was your salvo back to me:

Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte: Even the title of this gathering makes an assumption that may not be valid. What public trust are we talking about? Certainly minorities have been complaining for more than 100 years about their treatment in the news.

They still represent only a tiny fraction of the participants who produce the news. Women have complained almost as long. Yet the title assumes that they (presumably part of the public) have trusted until only recently…Surveys continue to show the press is still white male dominant and that for some time its primary audience has been that group of a certain age.

Are we concerned now because they no longer trust? However, I think that given the track record historically of censorship by omission …and the ongoing distortion of news about minority populations, leaders and issues, the mono-perspective content, the press has long failed its mission to inform. Moreover, members of the press were incredibly complacent as the press became a corporate entity charged with developing a news product.

And journalism educators overwhelmingly educate students for the fit of mainstream; alternative press options are rarely, if ever, provided at journalism education job fairs according to survey research. Yet alternative news has long led the mainstream in augmenting news perspective and correcting press errors…

Witt: Now we are back to real time, de Uriarte responds to her earlier comments:

de Uriarte: Well, if you remember, our earlier conversation, a month or so ago, began with that question. And with the assumption that the public was inclusive in its perception of the press. But minorities, and I would say many women, have never trusted the press. In fact, a key finding of the Kerner Commission in 1968 was that blacks perceived the press as the white press and a conclusion of the Kerner Commission was that in its “coverage” the press had “contributed to the schism” between black and white communities. I think that the more you know, the less you trust the mainstream press. And certainly, from my nine years with the LA TImes, I heard experts scorned as “eggheads;” newsrooms seem to be culturally anti-intellectual… There are all sorts of discouragements to contextualization. But context (among other things) builds trust. The press is a skimmer.

Witt: A skimmer? What do you mean by that?

de Uriarte: They skim off the surface of events. They do not provide depth and in newsrooms often rationalize that by saying that they provide news, not history. So what they wind up doing is marginalizing or omitting a significant percentage of the population (a growing percentage) and censoring by omission much of what they include for their audience. This is often done to make certain that they travel within a familiar “comfort zone.” Over the years, as the press has redefined itself as an entity that provides a product rather than one that is protected by the First Amendment in order to provide civic purpose, they have cheapened the profession and made it non-courageous.

Witt: Whew, those are hard hitting comments. Can you back them up with any concrete examples, statistics or research , perhaps from the in-depth Diversity Disconnect study you did a couple of years ago?

de Uriarte: Well, there are now so many documentaries and an increasing number of speeches by well established press people that it is hard to know where to start. Bill Moyers has given several speeches, some of which are available on line. The weapons of mass destruction episode is but one; the soft treatment of the nominees for various administrative posts that have been convicted in the past of lying to Congress during our covert wars in Central America in the 1980s–activities we all knew about at the time, but couldn’t get into our papers. The scapegoating of well-know journalists for telling “unpopular, but accurate” stories about US backed actions by death squads–like Ray Bonner of the New York Times.

As an editor at the LA Times for years it was my job to build a “stable” of writers for Opinion pieces (1200-word Sunday expansions of newsworthy topics). My intellectual beat was US-Latin American relations, issues dealing with US minorities. I quickly learned that the alternative press was ahead of the mainstream press by months in covering controversial topics. And Soldiers of Fortune told me more about what was going on in Central America than did the foreign pages. But I think most importantly, not until the UN Truth Commissions published their findings about what went on in these poor, majority rural nations did the US own up to its actions, many of which were found to be war crimes by the World Court. The citizens of this nation have a free press that is charged with keeping us informed so that we can govern with enlightenment. And we are not holding the press accountable to do that. Corporate America has become the power behind the pen. I grew up in a nation without a free press (Mexico) and I am stunned by the willingness to give away one of the most powerful protectors of freedom–an independent press.

One of the research activities of the project that produced Diversity Disconnects was to explore the intellectual vigor of members of the press. We made more than 1500 calls to get 615 open-ended interviews that asked reporters, editors and news directors where they went for information. What they read, what memberships they held in professional organizations, what they watched, etc. etc.

What we found was circular reinforcement. 96 percent read themselves and each other; 85 percent watch anchored news. 16 percent read conservative press; 12 percent read liberal/progressive press and 5 percent read race or ethnic target press. So how does one expand ones perspective on events? Locate knowledgeable sources outside the comfort zone? Only 25 percent listen to NPR and 15 percent watch PBS. 72 percent belong to professional organizations, but only 14 percent belong to race or ethnic specific professional organizations, even though membership is open to all in all professional organizations and minorities are expected to belong to “white” press organizations. Doesn’t seem to me that there is much exposure to other points of view. So how can this be either a pursuit of accuracy or an inclusive canopy of coverage? And without those elements how can the press be trustworthy?

Now we have packaged videotapes from government direct to news outlets presented to audience as news…this is trust building? I certainly hope not. Most Americans do not knowingly pay taxes for the production of propaganda or expect to be hoodwinked by their local news channel. So where’s the courage in this sort of collusion? Why did other nations doubt the weapons claims, but not the US press which is one of the best educated, best equipped and highest paid?

Witt: So when you say all that to members of the news media, what’s their response?

de Uriarte: A growing number of researchers, writers and organizations in the association for Media Reform (with a very large attendance already signed up for their convention in St. Louis in May) are saying these things to the press. Historically, they plead deadlines, inability to find “reliable” sources, editing, space, but they have never really addressed the case studies by Gans, Altschull (30-year professional journalist) Chomsky, Solomon, Black, Pedelty, et al… And from their perspective, why should they? They define accuracy and objectivity. But as I tell my students, when you define a news story as objective, anyone’s news story, you have just defined your own parameters of bias and are obligated to look further. But the stats from Diversity Disconnects indicate that the press doesn’t look far from its circle of decision makers, the majority of whom conform to a certain profile. There’s not much intellectual diversity in the newsroom.

Tough questions are not in vogue at the moment neither by the press nor to the press by the majority. The idea that the press is accountable to the public seems to be in an “off-line” position.

Witt: Most of your examples of news media ignorance or blind spots seem to be leaning toward leftist causes. What about the right’s charges of liberal bias?

de Uriarte: Accuracy is neither left nor right. Preventing US support of death squads in El Salvador or Contra in Nicaragua is neither left nor right; preventing the bombing of innocent civilians in Panama or Iraq is neither left nor right.

Which corporate owners of the press are you defining as liberal?

Witt: I am torn about saying this because it can put the brakes on a logical discussion. But you know some people are going to read this and say not only is the news media filled with bleeding-heart liberals, so is academia. Instead I want to talk about your statement: I am stunned by the willingness to give away one of the most powerful protectors of freedom–an independent press. Could you expand?

de Uriarte: That charge of bleeding hearts and right wing pundits is so threadbare it hardly merits response. The academy is supposed to be a forum for the free exchange of ideas in the interest of developing critical thinking skills. And if you read the Hutchins Commission (and significant bodies of ethics codes since their 1947 standards were set) you find that standard 3 states that the public can expect the press to provide “a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism.” So how do we do that if we have not developed critical thinkers?

Whenever questions become “irreverent” or hard to respond to those labels of bleeding hearts and liberal bias get tossed out as silencers. No wonder in 25 years the press has not been able to diversify. That’s one of the silencers to minority points of view.

I think that the citizens of this nation are not insistent enough that the press live up to its obligations to serve the cause of democratic self governance. As Altschull writes and documents in his work Agents of Power, press performance is shielded by the mythology of a watchdog role. The compression of press ownership into five basic owners of all significant forms of media (though not quite of all products) should have been resisted long ago.

Ben Bagdikian, former editor at the Washington Post, started warning Americans about the implications of this in the 1970s. In doing so he was echoing the warnings written by the Hutchins Commission in 1947. That’s more than 35 and 57 years ago. Kerner wrote about exclusion of whole populations more than 40 years ago…there’s a willingness in slow learning also. It’s called denial in some circles, but in the end the result is the same. And I think the Carnegie Report that finds a flight from newspapers (where space could allow context, unlike the sound bite) and the spike in US subscriptions to British press after 911 and to date is another testimony of untrustworthiness.

That concludes Part I of the Interview, where de Uriarte has laid out some problems. For Part II which will be posted soon, I am interested in finding out what, from her point of view, can be done to fix some of the problems. For example I have this question:

You talked about the need to developed critical thinkers in the newsroom. In your Diversity Disconnect study you laid part of the blame the newsroom problems on journalism education. What can we as educators do to fix journalism education?

3 Responses to “de Uriarte: Newsrooms’ Censorship by Omission”

  1. Matt Duffy Says:

    Thanks for asking the question about liberal bias. Her response speaks volumes. The academy appears to be filled with people who don’t think it’s worth even discussing the existance of a bias. In fact, as the St. Louis “media reform” convention shows, most think the problem with the press is that they aren’t left-wing enough.

  2. Matt Duffy Says:

    I went on a writing jag over at Please read my comments over there.

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