I was 17 years old the first time I was ever asked to censor an article. At that point in time, I had just taken over the position of opinions editor at my high school newspaper, and the principal of our school in north Atlanta had tasked me with the job of severely editing down a piece on the Junior-Senior wars that occurred every year. It technically was not my article but an older editor’s, yet the experience felt very close to heart.
Thus, I fought back in my first act of professional rebellion. Rather than cutting and replacing excerpts, I covered out nearly 75 percent of the article in large black boxes wherever a red slash or mark appeared in the principal’s edited version, and attached a small, italicized note at the bottom, which read, “Edits courtesy of the [name withheld] high school administration.”
This anecdote is not to promote the idea of “taking down the man” or rebellion, in any case. Rather, it’s to demonstrate what a fine balance that journalistic writing and providing the news must maintain. Each writer, news program or newspaper must separate their own emotions and experiences out from a story to inform the public, not to sway them. It’s the public’s own responsibility to make a judgment, not the writer’s. When a journalist covers a story, he or she must be selfless, leaving personal vendetta or passion behind.
In the same manner, officials (whether from student governments like SGA, school administrators, or even the federal government) should not come to expect to control or sway the media in anyway. As Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once said, “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
Censorship is not always as black and white as it may seem. Yes, there are the extreme instances of censorship, but even the slightest of biases or a withheld verse could have detrimental effects on a population of any size. In the world of journalistic integrity, there can be no “fluff” or “happy stories,” only the delivery of the truth, however unpleasant as it may be. Journalists also have the responsibility of acting as a voice for the people and a critic for any person in power when necessary and in the most objective manner. Rather than try to quash or feel hostile toward the press, those in power should embrace it and use it as a tool to enhance themselves or symbol of what unchecked power could be.
For example, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 has seemingly been erased from the history books, newspapers and even minds of China’s population, so much so that when four present-day students at Peking University (the institution whose students led much of the protests 20 years ago) were presented by PBS reporters with the iconic “Tank Man” photograph, many of them confused it with a military parade.
Yet as journalists, we should aspire to not stand as enemies toward those in power, but shed light and voice student and the people’s opinion. While a majority of time these stories can be negative, the goal is not to assume that governing bodies are all corrupt. In fact, our own SGA has made a number of strides to better academic and social life for students at Tech. Yet, there is always room to improve and things to uncover. More so, the general student body has no way to monitor constantly what administrators and elected representatives may choose to do. Thus, journalists must act as the middleman, even if it means playing good-cop-bad-cop.
A supposedly “critical” story goes a much longer way to improving a problem than a “happy” story that does nothing but ignore it. If a newspaper was filled with articles touting the triumphs of XYZ campus organization in all its 32 pages, it assumes there are no flaws. At that point, the newspaper loses its purpose, and becomes merely a piece of organizational propaganda.
There is no perfection in any organization or position of power; there is always something to criticize or room to improve. After all, it was two journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who were the first to report on the Watergate scandal, one of the most notorious instances of political corruption in American history. It would be naïve to believe otherwise.
Despite what tension may exist between the two parties, the press and the government (in any form) must coexist. While it is possible to work together, that partnership should never come at the expense of the truth.