JUNK FOOD NEWS​

Junk Food News, a concept introduced by Carl Jensen in 1983, refers to reporting that entertains rather than informs the public. It focuses on sensational yet inconsequential topics, diverting attention from more important stories. This term is now widely used, though its origin with Carl Jensen and Project Censored is often forgotten.

Rahman et al., Censored 2019, Ch.2
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What is Junk Food News?

Project Censored has continued to document the corporate media’s insatiable appetite for Junk Food News stories. To demonstrate how a focus on Junk Food News distracts public attention from important issues, students who work with Project Censored contrast specific “junk food” stories with high-quality coverage of other, more newsworthy issues that were overshadowed by sensational and trivial topics. As Jensen originally noted, “The problem is not the quantity of news but the quality. We seem to be suffering from news inflation; there is more of it than ever before, but it isn’t worth very much.”

 

The idea of “Junk Food News” came to Carl Jensen after news editors claimed that the Project’s annual lists of the Top 25 Censored Stories reflected disagreements about news judgment, rather than systemic censorship. After all, the editors responding to Project Censored claimed, newspapers and television news programs couldn’t report everything. Jensen considered this a valid response, prompting him to expand the Project’s focus to include critical assessment of what the establishment press did cover. What he found astonished him enough to warrant a new phrase—Junk Food News.

Jensen first used the term in 1983 in an article titled “Pandering to the Public.” Jensen wrote, “The typical junk food news diet consists of sensationalized, personalized, and homogenized inconsequential trivia,” masquerading as actual news. These Junk Food News stories come in many forms, including but not limited to:

 

    • Name-Brand News—Big-name celebrity trials or deaths and their anniversaries, affairs, and relationship dramas and scandals of the rich and famous;
    • Yo-Yo News—The stock market is up or down, the unemployment rate is up or down, the inflation rate is up or down, the crime rate is up or down, the interest rate is up or down, etc.;
    • Crazed News—The newest diet craze, fashion craze, dance craze, sports craze, drug craze, video game craze, social media craze, and, of course, the latest crazed killer; and
    • Seasonal News—The drought in the Southwest, the floods in the Northeast, the tornadoes in the Midwest, the fires in the West, seasonal holidays, and the ever-popular electoral news every couple of years when politicians earnestly pledge to solve all our problems. Every four years, we have the presidential candidates who make headlines with bold new plans (that often do not happen) to reduce taxes, lower prices, solve unemployment, deal with houselessness, defend us from terrorists, and balance the budget. Rinse and repeat.

Jensen’s concern was that the establishment media’s quest for more readers, advertisers, and profits would overshadow journalistic integrity and ethical reporting in the public interest. While corporate media continue to give precious space and time to Junk Food News, they could be covering any of the Top 25 Censored stories culled from the independent press. That they chose to report on Junk Food News instead is a matter of warped editorial judgment. The specifics may change from year to year, but the concept behind Junk Food News remains. Especially since the rise of the internet and social media, we cannot survive on a steady diet of Junk Food News.

 

*The above material is partially adapted from Peter Phillips and Project Censored, Censored 2001: 25 Years of Censored News and the Top Censored Stories of the Year (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001), 251-64. See Jensen and Project Censored’s associate director, Andy Lee Roth, talk about Junk Food News in the 2013 award-winning documentary Project Censored the Movie: Ending the Reign of Junk Food News (from 7:45 to the 9-minute mark).

 

Note: Junk Food News originally appeared as a stand-alone chapter in the annual Censored books from 1994 to 2001, previously an annual list published by Jensen. From Censored 2003 to Censored 2018, Junk Food was combined with another category, News Abuse, a term coined by Dr. Peter Phillips, which referred to news spin, distortion, or propaganda rather than trivial “junk.” Since 2019, Junk Food News and News Abuse have been separate chapters in the annual book, reflecting their distinct media analysis and criticism.