In 1976, when Carl Jensen, a professor at California's Sonoma State University, started looking into news-media self-censorship, nobody had ever dreamed of the Internet. Most computers were still big mainframes with whirling tape reels; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had just figured out how to make a personal computer, but sales were in the low hundreds.
Back then, the vast majority of Americans got their news—all of their news—from one daily newspaper and one of the three big TV networks. If a story wasn't on ABC, NBC or CBS, it might as well not have happened.
Almost 40 years later, the media world has radically changed. Now we're more likely to read our news on Facebook than watch the CBS Evening News; daily newspapers all over the country are struggling, in some cases dying. A story that appears on one obscure outlet can suddenly be a viral sensation reaching millions of readers at the speed of light.
Yet, as the group Jensen founded, Project Censored, has found, there are still numerous big, important news stories that receive very little exposure.
As Project staffers Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth note, 90 percent of U.S. news media—the traditional outlets that employ full-time reporters—are controlled by six corporations. "The corporate media," they write in this year's project intro, "hardly represent the mainstream.
"By contrast, the independent journalists that Project Censored has celebrated since its inception are now understood as vital components of what experts have identified as the newly developing 'networked fourth estate.'"
Jensen set out to frame a new definition of censorship. He put out an annual list of the 10 biggest stories that the mainstream media had ignored, arguing that it was a failure of the corporate press to pursue and promote these stories that represented censorship—not by the government, but by the media itself.
"My definition starts with the other end, with the failure of information to reach people," he wrote. "For the purposes of this project, censorship is defined as the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method—including bias, omission, underreporting or self-censorship, which prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in the world."
Jensen died in April 2015, but his project lives on. The people who inherited the mantle, Peter Phillips, a sociology professor at Sonoma State, and Huff, who teaches social science and history at Diablo Valley College, have veered at times into the world of conspiracies and 9/11 "truther" folks. A handful of past stories were, to be kind, difficult to verify. That's caused a lot of folks in the alternative press to question the validity of the annual list.
But Huff, who is now project director, and Roth, associate director, have expanded and tightened up the process of selecting stories; project staffers and volunteers first fact-check nominations that come in to make sure they are "valid" news reports. Then a panel of 28 judges, mostly academics with a few journalists and media critics, finalize the top 10 and the 15 runners-up.
The results are published in a book that was released Oct. 16, 2015 by Seven Stories Press.
I've been writing about Project Censored for 25 years, and I think it's safe to say that the stories on this year's list are credible, valid and critically important. Even in an era when most of us are drunk with information and overloaded by buzzing social media telling us things we didn't think we needed to know, these stories haven't gotten anywhere near the attention they deserve.