How Media Censorship Affects the News You See

Protesters hold signs demanding freedom for jailed journalists in Cairo
Adam Berry/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Although you may not realize it, media censorship happens to your news on a regular basis. While news stories are often simply edited for length, in many cases subjective choices are being made about whether to keep some information from becoming public. Sometimes these decisions are made to safeguard a person's privacy, other times to protect media outlets from corporate or political fallout, and yet other times for concerns of national security.

Key Takeaways: Media Censorship in America

  • Censorship the media is the suppression, alteration, or prohibition of written, spoken, or photographic information from books, newspapers, television and radio reports, and other media sources.
  • Censorship may be used to suppress information considered obscene, pornographic, politically unacceptable, or a threat to national security.
  • Censorship may be carried out by governments, businesses, and academic institutions.
  • Some uses of censorship, such as protecting the identity of crime victims or to prevent libel, are not controversial.
  • While most countries have laws against censorship, those laws are filled with loopholes and are often challenged in court.
  • It is not against the law for the authors, publishers, or other creators of information censoring their own works 

Censorship Definition 

Censorship is the alteration or suppression of speech, writing, photographs, or other forms of information based on the opinion that such material is subversive, obscene, pornographic, politically unacceptable, or otherwise harmful to the public welfare. Both governments and private institutions may carry out censorship for claimed reasons such as national security, to prevent hate speech, to protect children and other protected groups, to restrict political or religious opinion, or to prevent libel or slander.

People participate in a "Demand Free Speech" rally on Freedom Plaza on July 6, 2019 in Washington, DC.
People participate in a "Demand Free Speech" rally on Freedom Plaza on July 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The history of censorship dates back to 399 BC, when Greek philosopher, Socrates, after fighting off attempts by the Greek government to censor his teachings and opinions, was executed by drinking hemlock for attempting to corrupt young Athenians. More recently, censorship in the form of book burnings was conducted by the military dictatorship of Chile led by General Augusto Pinochet in the aftermath of the 1973 Chilean coup d'etat. In ordering the books burned, Pinochet hoped to prevent the spread of information that conflicted with his campaign to “extirpate the Marxist cancer” of the previous regime.

In 1766, Sweden became the first country to enacted the official first law banning censorship. While many modern countries have laws against censorship, none of these laws are ironclad and are often challenged as unconstitutional attempts to restrict certain rights, such as the freedoms of speech and expression. For example, the censorship of photographs deemed to be pornographic is often challenged by persons who consider the images to be an acceptable form of artistic expression. There are no laws preventing authors, publishers, or other information creators from self-censoring their own works. 

Censorship in Journalism

A cartoon from the Danish tabloid newspaper 'BT' demanding freedom of the press, May 15, 1964.
A cartoon from the Danish tabloid newspaper 'BT' demanding freedom of the press, May 15, 1964. Archive Photos/Getty Images

Journalists make difficult choices every day about what to share and what to hold back. Not only that, but they often experience pressure from outside forces to suppress information. It's important for the public to be informed about the choices those who deliver the news face, and why they might decide to keep certain information private or not. Here are five of the most common reasons for censorship in the media.

Protecting a Person's Privacy

This is probably the least controversial form of media censorship. For instance, when a minor commits a crime, their identity is concealed to protect them from future harm—so they aren't turned down from getting a college education or a job, for instance. That changes if a minor is charged as an adult, as in the case of violent crime.

Most media outlets also conceal the identity of rape victims, so those people don't have to endure public humiliation. That was not the case for a brief period in 1991 at NBC News when it decided to identify the woman accusing William Kennedy Smith (part of the powerful Kennedy clan) of raping her. After much public backlash, NBC later reverted to the common practice of secrecy.

Journalists also protect their anonymous sources from having their identity exposed for fear of retaliation. This is especially important when informants are individuals highly placed in governments or corporations who have direct access to important information.

Avoiding Graphic Details and Images

Every day, someone commits a heinous act of violence or sexual depravity. In newsrooms across the country, editors have to decide whether saying a victim "was assaulted" suffices in describing what happened.

In most instances, it does not. So a choice has to be made on how to describe the details of a crime in a way that helps the audience understand its atrocity without offending readers or viewers, especially children.

It's a fine line. In the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, the way he killed more than a dozen people was considered so sick that the graphic details were part of the story.

That was also true when news editors were faced with the sexual details of President Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky and the accusations of sexual harassment Anita Hill made about then-U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas. Words that no editor had ever thought of printing or a newscaster had ever considered uttering were necessary to explain the story.

Those are the exceptions. In most cases, editors will cross out information of an extremely violent or sexual nature, not to sanitize the news, but to keep it from offending the audience.

Concealing National Security Information

The U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic operations function with a certain amount of secrecy. That confidentiality is regularly challenged by whistleblowers, anti-government groups or others who want to lift the lid on various aspects of the U.S. government.

In 1971, The New York Times published what are commonly called the Pentagon Papers, secret Defense Department documents detailing the problems of American involvement in the Vietnam War in ways the media had never reported. The Richard Nixon administration went to court in a failed attempt to keep the leaked documents from being published.

Decades later, WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange came under fire for posting more than a quarter-million secret U.S. documents, many involving national security. When The New York Times published these U.S. State Department papers, the U.S. Air Force responded by blocking the newspaper's website from its computers.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks from the Ecuadorian Embassy on December 20, 2012 in London, England.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaks from the Ecuadorian Embassy on December 20, 2012 in London, England. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

These examples show that media owners often have a tense relationship with the government. When they approve stories containing potentially embarrassing information, government officials often try to censor it. Those in the media have the difficult responsibility of balancing the interests of national security with the public's right to know.

Advancing Corporate Interests

Media companies are supposed to serve the public interest. Sometimes that's at odds with the conglomerate owners who control traditional media voices.

Such was the case when The New York Times reported that executives from MSNBC owner General Electric and Fox News Channel owner News Corporation decided it wasn't in their corporate interests to allow on-air hosts Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly to trade on-air attacks. While the jabs seemed mostly personal, there was news that came out of them.

The Times reported that O'Reilly uncovered that General Electric was doing business in Iran. Although legal, GE later said it had stopped. A cease-fire between the hosts probably wouldn't have produced that information, which was newsworthy despite the apparent motivation for getting it.

In another example, cable TV giant Comcast faced a unique charge of censorship. Shortly after the Federal Communications Commission approved its takeover of NBC Universal, Comcast hired FCC commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, who had voted for the merger.

While some had already publicly denounced the move as a conflict of interest, a single tweet is what unleashed Comcast's wrath. A worker at a summer film camp for teenage girls questioned the hiring through Twitter and Comcast responded by yanking $18,000 in funding for the camp.

The company later apologized and offered to restore its contribution. Camp officials say they want to be able to speak freely without being hushed by corporations.

Hiding Political Bias

Critics often lambast media for having a political bias. While viewpoints on the op-ed pages are clear, the link between politics and censorship is harder to spot.

The ABC news program "Nightline" once devoted its broadcast to reading the names of more than 700 U.S. servicemen and women killed in Iraq. What appeared to be a solemn tribute to military sacrifice was interpreted as a politically motivated, anti-war stunt by Sinclair Broadcast Group, which didn't allow the program to be seen on the seven ABC stations it owned.

Ironically, a media watchdog group called out Sinclair itself for labeling 100 members of Congress "censorship advocates" when they raised concerns to the FCC about Sinclair's plans to air the film, "Stolen Honor." That production was blasted for being propaganda against then-presidential candidate John Kerry.

Sinclair responded by saying it wanted to air the documentary after the major networks refused to show it. In the end, bowing to pressure on several fronts, the company aired a revised version that only included parts of the film.​

Communist countries that once stopped the free flow of information may have largely disappeared, but even in America, censorship issues keep some news from reaching you. With the explosion of citizen journalism and internet platforms, the truth may have an easier way of getting out. But, as we have seen, these platforms have brought their own challenges in the era of "fake news."

Updated by Robert Longley 

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Halbrooks, Glenn. "How Media Censorship Affects the News You See." ThoughtCo, Feb. 25, 2022, Halbrooks, Glenn. (2022, February 25). How Media Censorship Affects the News You See. Retrieved from Halbrooks, Glenn. "How Media Censorship Affects the News You See." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).