- Art by Anson Stevens-Bollen
In the United States, we commonly think of press freedom and censorship in terms of the First Amendment, which focuses attention on the press itself and the limits on the power of government to restrict it. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted in the aftermath of World War II, presents a broader framework; Article 19 reads, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
By highlighting the right to receive information and ideas, Article 19 makes it clear that press freedom is about everyone in society, not just the press, and that government censorship is only one potential way of thwarting that right. That's the perspective that has informed Project Censored from the beginning, more than 40 years ago.
Even though Project Censored's annual list focuses on specific censored stories, the underlying issue has never been isolated examples. The stories serve to highlight how far short we fall from the fully informed public that a healthy democracy requires — and that we all require in order to live healthy, safe, productive, satisfying lives. It's the larger patterns of missing information, hidden problems, and threats that should really concern us. Each Project Censored story provides some of that information, but the annual list helps shed light on these broader patterns of what's missing, as well as on the specifics of the stories themselves.
During the 1972 presidential election, Woodward and Bernstein were reporting on the earliest developments in the Watergate Scandal, but their work was largely isolated, despite running in the Washington Post. They were covering it as a developing criminal case; it never crossed over into a political story until after the election. That's a striking example of a missing pattern. It helped contribute to the founding of Project Censored by Carl Jensen, who defined censorship as "the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method — including bias, omission, underreporting, or self-censorship — that prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in its society."
In the current edition's introduction to the list of stories, Andy Lee Roth writes, "Finding common themes across news stories helps to contextualize each item as a part of the larger narratives shaping our times." He goes on to cite several examples spanning the top 25 list: four stories on climate change, six involving racial inequalities, four on issues involving courts, three on health issues, "at least two stories" involving the Pentagon, three on government surveillance, and two involving documentary films produced by the Shell Oil Co.
Roth goes on to say, "There are more connections to be identified. As we have noted in previous Censored volumes, the task of identifying common topical themes, within each year's story list and across multiple years transforms the reader from a passive recipient of information into an active, engaged interpreter. We invite you to engage with this year's story list in this way."
With that thought in mind, here is Project Censored's Top 10 List for 2016-17:
1. Widespread Lead Contamination Threatens Children's Health and Could Triple Household Water Bills
After President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Flint, Mich., based on lead contamination of the city's water supply in January 2016, Reuters reporters M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer began an investigation of lead contamination nationwide with shocking results. In June 2016, they reported that although many states and Medicaid rules require blood lead tests for young children, millions of children were not being tested. In December 2016, they reported on the highly decentralized data they had been able to assemble from 21 states, showing that 2,606 census tracts and 278 zip codes across the United States had levels of lead poisoning more than double the rates found in Flint at the peak of its contamination crisis. Of those, 1,100 communities had lead contamination rates "at least four times higher" than Flint.
In Flint, 5 percent of the children screened had high blood lead levels. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 2.5 percent of all U.S. children younger than six — about 500,000 children — have elevated blood lead levels.
But Pell and Schneyer's neighborhood focus allowed them to identify local hotspots "whose lead poisoning problems may be obscured in broader surveys," such as those focused on statewide or countywide rates. They found them in communities that "stretch from Warren, Pennsylvania ... where 36 percent of children tested had high lead levels, to ... Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning." What's more, "In some pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 40 to 50 percent."
In the East Bay, the reporters identified eight Alameda County zip codes with lead levels equal to or greater than Flint, including Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood and parts of Emeryville and Fremont.
In January 2017, Schneyer and Pell reported that, based on their previous investigation, "From California to Pennsylvania, local leaders, health officials and researchers are advancing measures to protect children from the toxic threat. They include more blood-lead screening, property inspections, hazard abatement and community outreach programs."
But there's a deeper infrastructure problem involved, as Farron Cousins reported for DeSmogBlog in January 2017. "Lead pipes are time bombs" and water contamination is to be expected, Cousins wrote. The United States relies on an estimated 1.2 million miles of lead pipes for municipal delivery of drinking water, and much of this aging infrastructure is reaching or has exceeded its lifespan.
Joshua Schneyer and M.B. Pell, “Unsafe at Any Level: Millions of American Children Missing Early Lead Tests, Reuters Finds,” Reuters, June 9, 2016.
M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer, “Off the Charts: The Thousands of U.S. Locales Where Lead Poisoning Is Worse Than in Flint,” Reuters, Dec. 19, 2016.
Farron Cousins, “America Is Suffering from a Very Real Water Crisis That Few Are Acknowledging,” DeSmogBlog, Jan. 24, 2017.