The daily dispatches and nightly newscasts of the mainstream media regularly cover terrorism, but rarely discuss how the fear of attacks is used to manipulate the public and set policy. That's the common thread of many unreported stories last year, according to an analysis by Project Censored.
Since 1976, Sonoma State University has released an annual survey of the top 25 stories the mainstream media failed to report or reported poorly. Culled from worldwide alternative news sources, vetted by students and faculty, and ranked by judges, the stories were not necessarily overtly censored. But their controversial subjects, challenges to the status quo, or general under-the-radar subject matter might have kept them from the front pages. Project Censored recounts them, accompanied by media analysis, in a book of the same name published annually by Seven Stories Press.
"This year, war and civil liberties stood out," Peter Phillips, project director since 1996, said of the top stories. "They're closely related and part of the War on Terror that has been the dominant theme of Project Censored for seven years, since 9/11."
Whether it's preventing what one piece of legislation calls "homegrown terrorism" by federally funding the study of radicalism, using vague concerns about security to quietly expand NAFTA, or refusing to count the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the war, the threat of terrorism is being used to silence people and expand power.
"The war on terror is a sort of mind terror," said Nancy Snow, one of the project's 24 judges and an associate professor of public diplomacy at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Snow who has taught classes on war, media, and propaganda elaborated: "You can't declare war on terror. It's a tactic used by groups to gain publicity and it will remain with us. But it's unlikely that [the number of terrorist acts] will spike. It spikes in the minds of people."
She pointed out that the number of terrorist attacks has dropped worldwide since 2003. Some use the absence of fresh attacks as evidence that the so-called war on terror is working. But a RAND Corporation study for the Department of Defense released in August said the war on terror hasn't effectively undermined Al Qaeda. It suggested the phrase be replaced with the less loaded term "counterterrorism."
Both Phillips and Snow agree that comprehensive, contextual reporting is missing from most of the coverage. "That's one of my criticisms of the media," Snow said. "They spotlight issues and don't look at the entire landscape."
This year the landscape of Project Censored itself is expanding. After talking with educators who bemoan the ongoing decline of news quality and want to help, Phillips launched the Truth Emergency Project, in which Sonoma State partners with 23 other universities. All will host classes for students to search out untold stories, vet them for accuracy, and submit them for consideration to Project Censored.
"There's a renaissance of independent media," Phillips said. He thinks bloggers and citizen journalists are filling crucial roles left vacant by staff cutbacks throughout the mainstream media. And, he said, it's time for universities, educators, and media experts to step in and help. "It's not just reforming the media, but supporting them in as many ways as they need, like validating stories by fact-checking."
The Truth Emergency Project will also host a news service that aggregates the top 12 independent media sources and posts them on one page. "So you can get an RSS feed from all the major independent news sources we trust," he said. Discerning newshounds can find reporting from the BBC, Democracy Now!, and Inter Press Service (IPS) in one spot.