Light through the Slats

Student-led news watch challenges corporate news frames that leave the public in the dark

by Shealeigh

By Andy Lee Roth and Steve Macek

The power of news is often described using visual metaphors. Good journalism is said to be illuminating, meaning it provides clarity and insight; exemplary reporting is praised for “shining light” on a subject or “bringing to light” crucial facts and original perspectives. And the concept of “framing,” a fundamental element of critical media literacy, portrays news as a “window” to the world—yet another visual metaphor.

Extending these metaphors of vision and illumination, the independent news reports identified and vetted by college students and highlighted by Project Censored in its annual presentation the year’s most important but underreported stories are rays of light shining through a heavily slatted window. Each of these independent news reports addresses an issue that has otherwise been dimly lit or altogether obscured by corporate news outlets.

The shading slats are built from the corporate media’s concentrated ownership, reliance on advertising, relationship to political power, and narrow definitions of who and what count as “newsworthy.” Censorship, whether overt or subtle, establishes the angle of the slats, admitting more or less light from outside. Put another way, independent reporting on these topics—light shining through the slats—represents the influence of independent journalism to challenge the “mainstream” news media’s exclusive worldview.

In 1920, Walter Lippmann, a leading media critic of his era, issued a clarion call: “The news about the news needs to be told,” Lippmann wrote. Since 1976, college students working with Project Censored have done just that. Each year students and faculty participating in the Project’s Campus Affiliates Program identify and vet independent news stories on issues that have either been marginalized or blockaded by corporate news media.

One fundamental purpose of the annual Top 25 story list is to draw greater attention to important issues that we only know about because of intrepid reporting by independent journalists and news organizations. From activism to reform outdated laws that criminalize HIV to the economic costs of gun violence and the discovery of toxic “forever chemicals” in rainwater, each of the stories highlighted by Project Censored is important in its own right and represents an issue on which the public might be motivated to act, were it better informed.

But it is also important to grasp the Project’s 2022-23 story list as the latest installment in an ongoing effort to identify systemic gaps in so-called “mainstream” (i.e., corporate) news coverage. Examining public issues that independent journalists and outlets have reported but which fall outside the scope of corporate news coverage makes it possible to document in specific detail how corporate news media leave the public in the dark by marginalizing or blockading crucial issues, limiting political debate, and promoting corporate views and interests. To Project Censored’s existing database of 1,175 news topics and stories neglected by the establishment press, State of the Free Press 2024 adds twenty-five new data points.

Examining connections between stories within this year’s Top 25 list can be a first step in recognizing patterns of omission or marginalization in corporate framing of what is newsworthy. One of the most obvious of these omissions is the corporate news media’s apparent reluctance to cover the grinding consequences of immense, systemic economic inequalities, as highlighted by independent press reporting on record-high corporate profits, a looming debt crisis for the world’s poorest nations, and the reality that nearly half of all unhoused people in the United States are employed.

Another major theme of independent journalism evident in this year’s story list is the corrosive influence of the fossil fuel industry. In efforts to maintain their economic interests and political influence, fossil fuel investors are suing national governments to thwart climate regulations and using donations to universities to skew climate and energy research, even as climate change has forced entire tribal towns to relocate, and new research further documents the threats of oil and gas extraction to human health, including especially mothers and young children.

Thanks to the work of independent journalists, we also know that rainforest carbon offset programs—as endorsed by Shell, Disney, and other internationally renowned corporations—are often “worthless” and that the fossil fuel industry was not alone in hiding its knowledge of the climate crisis from the public: Electric utility companies have also been knowingly spreading misinformation about climate change for decades.

Project Censored’s 2024 story list also includes a cluster of stories that illuminate the nuanced realities of censorship in the twenty-first century. Big Tech companies, including Google, Meta, and Microsoft, are hiring former employees of US and Israeli intelligence agencies for senior positions, affording them significant influence over online communication, commerce, and information gathering; US government agencies have pressured Twitter to constrain political content on the popular social networking service; and leaked Department of Homeland Security documents revealed new details of its efforts to ramp up censorship of dangerous online speech through the development of a Disinformation Governance Board

This year’s Top 25 Censored story list represents the collective effort of 220 students from twelve college and university campuses across the United States who have developed and engaged their critical media literacy skills by identifying, vetting, and summarizing important but under-reported independent news stories. They are the forty-eighth cohort of students who have worked with Project Censored to expose and publicize what its founder, Carl Jensen, called “The News That Didn’t Make the News—and Why.”

Perhaps one or more of the featured stories will motivate you to join the independent journalists, student researchers, and Project Censored in speaking out about these important but often overshadowed issues. Focusing attention on what Lippmann called “the news about the news” helps to expose the operation of the “slats” that frequently filter our news and privilege elite interests. Removing these filters allows the light of independent journalism that serves the public good to shine more brightly.

Note: The above material was adapted from Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2024, Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff, eds. (Fair Oaks, CA and New York: The Censored Press and Seven Stories Press, 2023).