The News That Didn't Make the News: A Q&A With Andy Lee Roth '90
The associate director of Project Censored has a few questions: Who is producing the news you consume? Who (or what) might be filtering what you find online? And how does this limit your ability to be informed and engaged, in your community or as a citizen?
As a sociologist, Andy Lee Roth '90, who earned his Ph.D. at UCLA, came to appreciate the power of news to shape how we understand the world. As associate director of Project Censored, a non-profit news watch organization founded in 1976, Roth works to promote critical media literacy. He coordinates the Project’s Campus Affiliates Program, which links several hundred students at colleges and universities across the country in a collaborative effort to identify and vet important news stories that establishment media has either marginalized or ignored.
The current Project Censored yearbook, State of the Free Press 2022, published in January, highlights the top 25 stories of 2020-21. This is the 12th edition of the yearbook Roth has co-edited.
Freelance journalist Natalie Pompilio talked to Roth about “junk food news,” corporate news media, and the way that search engines can limit our access to news.
Natalie Pompilio: You say the establishment news media and independent news media are very different. How and why?
Andy Lee Roth: Corporate news media—which isn’t “mainstream” because it does not actually represent the interests or needs of everyday Americans—by and large reflects corporate interests and perspectives. That stands in stark contrast to independent news media, which is characterized by more inclusive definitions of who and what count as newsworthy.
The most fundamental form of news bias is not red versus blue, conservative versus liberal. Instead, as a lot of research indicates, when it comes to corporate news a far more fundamental form of bias arises from journalists’ and editors’ almost exclusive reliance on official sources—government officials, corporate spokespersons, and so on—as the most newsworthy figures. This significantly limits what counts as “news.”
NP: Project Censored wants to eliminate the amount of “junk food news” we are currently being served. What is that?
ALR: Junk food news is like a bag of chips: You eat one, then another, and when the bag is empty you have a stomachache—but you’re still hungry! Junk food news titillates us and makes us want more, but it doesn’t nourish us as community members or citizens. It leaves us unfulfilled. Many forms of corporate media are designed to keep you coming back for more.
One of this year’s top junk food stories was “Gorilla Glue Girl.” She became famous on TikTok when she used Gorilla Glue to style her hair, ostensibly by mistake. The video of her expressing surprise, real or feigned, went viral. Many establishment news outlets treated this as news. While many U.S. news outlets were feeding their audiences the schadenfreude amusement of Gorilla Glue Girl, they were neglecting to cover the significant humanitarian crisis in Yemen—one that is at least partly a consequence of U.S. foreign policy.
NP: One scene in Project Censored the Movie, the 2013 documentary, shows Time magazine covers from around the world. In Europe and Asia, a December 2011 issue featured revolution in the Middle East on the cover. The same week the cover story of the U.S. edition was “Why Anxiety Is Good for You.” Are media outlets giving people what they want?
ALR: Many of the students I’ve taught tune out the news. When you ask them why they’ll say, “I’m busy, I don’t have the time.” Or “The news is depressing. I can’t deal with it.” That’s a real problem. Anyone concerned with maintaining journalism as a cornerstone of democracy needs to ask, “How do we make news palatable to people, engaging to people, without resorting to click bait stories, fear mongering, or 24/7 ‘hot takes’?” How do we cultivate public demand for substantive news and real investigative reporting?
When students say “I don’t follow the news,” I say, “Maybe you’re reading the wrong news. Perhaps you’d find solutions journalism, which focuses on real responses to social problems, more engaging.” News outlets such as YES! Magazine and the Solutions Journalism Network are fantastic alternatives. They don’t report fluffy “feel good” stories. Solutions journalism focuses on stories where communities are addressing long standing, systemic problems. As the Project’s annual story lists show, solutions journalism is often ignored or marginalized by corporate news outlets.
NP: Let’s talk about tech. Does the average news consumer know that the information they’re getting is shaped by how they access it?
ALR: That’s a problem that Big Tech—Google, Meta, and such—are not interested in making people aware of. A lot of people don’t appreciate that the search engines and social media apps they use are not neutral platforms. The results that Google’s search engine returns are affected by the algorithm driving that search engine. We lack direct access to those algorithms, but it’s fairly easy to have people see for themselves: Do a search on Google News on a topic of interest and then do the same search on DuckDuckGo. In many cases, the results are dramatically different.
NP: You did that in 2020 for a research project that looked at one week of LGBTQ-related content from Google and DuckDuckGo, yes?
ALR: That’s right. Avram Anderson, a librarian at Macalester College, and I found that the LGBTQ+ stories highlighted by Google News often originated from religious right-wing sources that featured homophobic or transphobic perspectives. The same search terms in the same time period on DuckDuckGo produced more varied and trustworthy articles.
This fit with patterns that other researchers have documented: The Google News platform is often a harbor for homophobic and transphobic content. But we can’t open the black box of Google’s proprietary algorithm to see why, meaning we don’t know if the algorithm itself has been written to produce biased results, or whether it has been gamed by people with anti-LGBTQ+ agendas.
NP: Has Project Censored seen an issue featured in its yearbook subsequently receive prominence in the establishment press?
ALR: Looking back to 2011-2012, independent journalists and Project Censored covered the United States’ weaponized drone program, and controversy over civilian casualties caused by it, months before the corporate news media widely covered that issue. The independent news coverage of this as an important news topic in effect put pressure on bigger, corporate outlets to start covering it themselves.
Part of the lack of corporate news coverage of this topic is explained by the corporate media’s reliance on government officials. At the time, almost every member of Congress was restricted from talking publicly about the drone program, due to security requirements. Independent reporters were talking to activist organizations and spokespeople, who had high-quality information, factual and verifiable information. Their perspectives were newsworthy. They just didn’t fit the corporate media’s profile of preferred sources.
NP: Is there hope for the future?
ALR: We live in an era with more outstanding independent journalism than ever before. The challenge for audiences is to find that news. The Project’s founder Carl Jensen coined the term “news inflation” to express this challenge. We have more and more news, but it seems to be worth less and less, Jensen observed.
Project Censored attempts to counter news inflation by pointing people to independent news sources and stories that we’ve validated, which we’ve fact checked as trustworthy and vetted as significant. “This,” the Project in effect says, “is a story worth the time it will take you to engage it.”