When is news judgment another name for censorship?

Micheal VonnMicheal Vonn, a lawyer who
teaches the ethics of librarianship, on banning books, placement calls, and why stocking library shelves is a lot like selecting
stories for tomorrow’s paper (and how both can be done better).

I have been heartened by a number of recent articles critically examining the media hullabaloo about Mr. Jones and the bonfire of the inanities. In the excellent “Terry Jones Syndrome: Guidelines for responsible news selection”, Stephen Ward sets out principles and suggestions to guide ethical news selection, with a particular focus on dealing with stories that have gone viral. I am more familiar with information ethics in a library context than a media context, but it strikes me that there is considerable overlap. 

I have co-taught a graduate course in information ethics and intellectual freedom at a library school. Almost no one outside a library school has any ideas what that means, so inevitably I would use short-hand: “It’s about censorship”. Which of course makes my academic colleagues jealous, because censorship is a juicy topic to explore, frequently involving sex, drugs, violence, racism, witchcraft and same-sex parenting penguins.

Although we use the language of “censorship” in a library context, it is quite rare for a book to be “banned”.  What is infinitely more common is for a book to be “challenged”, which means that complaints have been made and these may include demands that the book be taken off the shelves. And if you are wondering where the penguins come in, it’s because the lovely 2005 children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, about two adult, male penguins who successfully hatch and raise a baby penguin named Tango, has been one of North America’s most banned and challenged library books for some years running. 

Tango and other challenged books have a friend in the Canadian Library Association which has a Statement on Intellectual Freedom that clearly says libraries have an obligation to resist efforts to limit access to materials. There are some high profile instances of book being banned, but few of the everyday information ethics issues in libraries fall under that fiery banner. The more usual questions are far from the ‘sexy issues’ aisle where we expect to find censorship matters, and over in the seemingly innocuous, technical department of shelving, classification and selection. 

Placement/prominence and classification are information ethics matters in both libraries and news media.  In libraries, relocation of controversial materials is a fairly common way of avoiding a blatant censorship challenge. If you find that And Tango Makes Three, a children’s picture book that happens to be based on a true story of penguins in a New York zoo, is only to be found under “zoology”, you know you have an information ethics issue. But many classification calls are much more difficult to place on the possible-censorship spectrum, including the question of where to put controversial materials for older children/young adults. And more fundamentally, there is the question of buying the books in the first place. 

On the one hand, “collection management” — acquiring materials for the library — is the obvious starting point for a discussion about access to materials.  Usually framed as a question of “selection vs. censorship” (in keeping with an influential article by Lester Asheim), library scholars and policy advisors have tried to develop criteria and policy for buying materials that ensures that the library isn’t “censoring” materials at the front end by simply failing to acquire it. 

Which is all fine and good in terms of a theory, but since you can’t have every book in the world in your library, what does constitute an ethical framework for choosing? Ann Curry’s research in the 1990s on Canadian public libraries acquisition of Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious novel American Psycho illustrates the complexity of the issue. For example, the most influential factors cited for deciding to purchase American Psycho were the frequency of patron requests and the extent of the media coverage. 

However, librarians who rejected the book because they thought there would not be much demand for it turned out to be right. The media profile apparently generated a lot of discussion about the book, but not much desire to actually read it. So, consulting the “crystal ball of future circulation” would be ideal, except we don’t have one. All we have are librarians’ consideration and interpretation of various factors which include the presence or absence of patron requests, media attention, book reviews, a commitment to having a wide representation of view points on given subjects and knowledge and appreciation of the community’s needs. While this process is clearly more art than science, I have marveled at how a good acquisitions librarian ensures that her library reflects the diversity of the community and diversity of opinion on any topic, no matter how controversial. But, as the American Psycho example illustrates, much ado as a lone factor is not necessarily a reliable guideline for selection. 

Whether the question is American Psycho: yes or no?; How to catalogue the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?; Where to put the graphic novels that are really, really graphic?;  Why the entire media universe glaringly interrupted the well-deserved obscurity of Terry Jones? Or, how that media circus effectively drowned out the report of charges against twelve U.S. soldiers for random killings of Afghan civilians; it strikes me that selection and management are core information ethics issues and that the same democratic principles underlie good journalism and good public libraries. 

Micheal Vonn is a lawyer and the Policy Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association.  She has been an Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Faculty of Law and the UBC School of Library, Archival and Information Studies.