Sense and censorship

Alternative media: telling the whole story

Journalists leave a safe zone that is the corporate media in order to convey what needs to be said. Photo by Gaul Porat.

When you talk or write for a living, at some point, somebody is going to want you to shut up. That’s the problem with putting information out there: not everybody wants to know.

The urge to censor is universal, stemming from our desire to shape reality to fit our worldview, and it can take many forms. The urge to silence a voice can come from many directions: from the government, from advertisers, even from the public whom the media is trying to inform. To complicate matters, censorship doesn’t just come from above.

Hunter S. Thompson noted in his book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, “any Washington political reporter who blows a Senator’s chance for the vice-presidency might as well start looking for another beat to cover—because his name will be instant mud on Capital Hill.” This analogy can be extended to every kind of coverage: if you don’t play by the rules, you can kiss your access goodbye.

The result has been the rise of the alternative media: journalists who are not beholden to a profit line and aren’t afraid of upsetting the status quo that ensure access. Going forward, it is vital to know how those taking the road less travelled are able to avoid the pitfalls of the mainstream in order to keep the information flowing.

Say it like you mean it

Matt Mills is the editorial director of Pink Toronto Press, the publisher of Xtra, a weekly newspaper oriented towards the LGBT community.

According to Mills, censorship is part of the game, no matter the publication. He admits that it’s human nature to have biases, which influences how a story is written or whether it gets published. The trick, he said, is being aware of that fact so that it can be accounted for.

“I think [with] the notion of unbiased journalism, the reality is that every publication is an activist publication in its own way,” he said. “Every piece of writing, no matter how balanced it professes to be, is informed with a viewpoint.

“In our organization, there is a great deal of latitude that writers and editors have in choosing and publishing stories. It’s one of the reasons I work here and stay involved.”

But that kind of latitude can be a mixed bag. On the one hand, you risk alienating readers by printing something they find disagreeable. On the other hand, a reputation for honest, thought-provoking journalism is the kind of reputation that can draw a wider audience.

This is the niche where independent media finds itself and the difference between it and the corporate media model is something Mills has experienced firsthand, having worked for the National Post.

The gap between the two is especially noticeable when dealing with the queer community. Notably, Xtra has continued to cover the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, despite the fact that the group has been banned from Pride Week activities, though Pride advertises in Xtra.

“We’re in a very unique position among gay media in that we don’t tailor our editorial position to pander to the needs of advertisers,” explained Mills. “In fact, our work is very strenuously anti-censorship.”

This differs greatly, he said, from his experience at the National Post, not only in the tone directed at the LGBT community, but also in the way that editorial decisions were manifested among the staff. To explain the willingness of writers to toe the party line, Mills cites the competitive nature of journalism.

“At the time [when] the gay marriage debate began to heat up, there was a proliferation of jabs at [the] gay and lesbian [community] in the [newspaper],” he remembered. “I read the paper very closely and I would write to journalists who I thought had written about gays and lesbians in a manner that was unfair, or worse, uninformed. In several cases, I got responses from working journalists who wrote back to say ‘Well listen, I agree with you, but this is the editorial voice of the paper. This is what’s expected, so this is the material that I write.’”

A cornerstone of democracy

In a democracy like ours, there are a wide and diverse variety of opinions on any given subject, which ensures that no matter what your stance is, you’re going to anger somebody. According to Dru Oja Jay, writer, editor, solidarity activist, self-proclaimed libertarian socialist and co-founder of monthly newspaper The Dominion, that just means you have to be particular about who you’re going to piss off.

“Every media outlet has its supporters and every supporter has certain topics that they’re going to get mad about,” he points out. “It’s just a question of choosing which people those are going to be.”

Often, for The Dominion, those are the people with the money—or as Jay calls them “the people with real power.”

It can be tempting to watch what you say to avoid raising ire. Jay cites a recent case involving the Canadian mining industry as proof.

“One of the main examples [of the consequences] would be the case of Noir Canada, which is a book written about the Canadian mining industry and its less than stellar record abroad. [The mining companies] didn’t like the things said in it, so they sued them. The authors had to spend all their time and money fighting this. I think that has a chilling effect. Everyone who has something to say about the Canadian mining industry is going to think twice.”

It takes courage for journalists to face these kinds of personal, professional and financial risks to break a story. Of course, the danger isn’t just fiduciary—if a reporter upsets a source, it can be just as damaging to a career as a lawsuit. However, that’s one of the freedoms that an alternative media source has over a mainstream publication. It’s understood that toes are going to be stepped on, so getting canned isn’t something that needs to be feared.

“I’ve lost access before,” Jay acknowledged. “Generally, I see that as something to be proud of, as long as I’m confident that I told the truth. I generally decide that even if this loses me access next time, I’m going to go ahead with it, because it’s more important to ask the pertinent question.”

Mills says that he does what he does in order to arm the population with the information necessary to play its role.

“Free journalism is a fundamental cornerstone of democracy,” he said earnestly. “You cannot have democracy without an educated and well informed population.”

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 1, published June 11, 2010.