Monday, January 23, 2012

You Don't Say...Censorship in the European Media

By Tayler Overschmidt

Our recent two-week adventure through Europe was an eye opening experience regarding European media practices and styles. As we toured Prague, Paris, Brussels and Rome, we also toured new perspectives regarding journalism ethics.

Prague's Astronomical Clock. (Tayler Overschmidt)
In Prague, we visited McCann-Erickson, where we saw some examples of some famous—or infamous—advertising campaigns in the Czech Republic. A representative from the company presented information for us regarding some of the most well known advertising campaigns in the country and other information on the “Czechness.”

During the presentation, I asked what campaign from McCann-Erickson made the representative the most proud. His answer was a commercial for a dessert called Fidorkas. In this commercial, a little girl hits a car with her doll and makes the airbags inflate. Then she steals the dessert right out of the car passenger’s hand. The thing is, this commercial had a very short time on the air because it was banned.

When I heard this, I was a little surprised. After watching the commercial, I thought it was pretty tame. No one got hurt and it was a funny commercial. I’ve certainly seen more shocking commercials air in the US.

After that, I started paying more attention to the examples of ways the media was censored in Europe compared to in the US.

Eiffel Tower. (Tayler Overschmidt)
At our next destination, Paris, I was even more surprised by the differences between US. and French censorship. At Sciences Po, we learned a lot about how U.S. and French coverage of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) scandal differed.

In France, it is illegal to show people accused of a crime in handcuffs or doing a “perp walk.” This practice is very common in the US. We’re all familiar with the media frenzy to get the footage of any famous person accused of a crime on their way in or out of court. I personally remember airing the footage of DSK in one of my shows on KOMU.

Many French media outlets chose to air that footage, as well, but that means Strauss-Kahn could potentially sue the media outlets in France because what they did was illegal. This stems from the intense restrictions in France set up to protect people’s personal lives.

Coming from a media environment where it is normal to seek out details about any celebrity’s personal life, where it’s a matter of public importance if any famous person is engaged, pregnant or getting a divorce, and where political figures must have spotless personal lives, it’s surprising to see such secrecy in France.

The French value personal privacy so much that reporters will knowingly choose to ignore problems in political figures’ personal lives. An example comes from one story of a reporter who followed a political campaign and knew the candidate and his wife were fighting behind the scenes. The reporter knew the whole time this was happening and didn’t report on it. Now, after the information is no longer timely, the reporter is taking it all and writing a book on the candidate’s personal struggles.

I find it a little shocking that none of this came out at the time of the campaign. I think the public in the US would not accept such a lack of transparency from our media.

On the other hand, the French media was much less sensitive about information regarding DSK’s accuser. In the US, it is accepted practice to not name victims in cases like these. Media like the New York Times did not name DSK’s accuser until she held a news conference and chose to speak to the public. And when they did use her name, the New York Times justified the decision by explaining that the woman had held that news conference voluntarily.

In France, the media did not hesitate to name her. They also used images of her that were barely blurred out to the point where it would no have been difficult to identify her image.

France24. (Tayler Overschmidt)
Seeing these interesting differences between French and US media practices was probably the most surprising part of our media tour. But our stops in Brussels were also an interesting take on a side of the media I’m not as familiar with.

While in Brussels, we met with the U.S. Media Hub for Europe. The media hub is responsible for providing material for news organizations from the US perspective. That includes b-roll and sound bites from sources with a US angle. It also includes interviews with US officials in staged settings featuring backgrounds with the American flag or other US imagery.

We got to see how the US can censor information by controlling what footage they send to the news organizations for broadcast.

European Union Symbol. (Tayler Overschmidt)
On the other hand, the European Parliament uses much less censorship and acts more like C-SPAN than anything else. News organizations have to get much of their footage from the EP’s cameras, but those cameras are just set up in stationary positions and the video is available for general use. They also stream this video on their website.

Representatives from our stop at Reuters even said that the video it can get from the EP cameras was better and in more places than it could get, so it often just uses that video instead of getting its own.

St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. (Tayler Overschmidt)
I saw the most restrictions on media freedom, however, at our last destination: Rome. To be more precise, the restrictions were heaviest at the Vatican. The Vatican owns the rights to all images, audio and video recordings of the Pope. That means, if any media organization wants to use that material, it has to get it from the official Vatican sources. Talk about strict control.

When asked, a representative from Vatican Radio said those protections were set up after an incident where a business was using the Pope’s voice in its voicemail recording. But what it comes down to is that it’s not possible to show the Pope without the Vatican’s approval. That’s about as tight as media restrictions get.

Overall, it was interesting to see new perspectives on how much the media should and should not say. French media was interesting because the common practices are so different from US practices. The Vatican was interesting because it kept such tight control over what the rest of the world was allowed to use while covering the Catholic Church and the Pope.

Seeing these different perspectives has made me more aware of how I approach these topics in my work in the US Our media tour trip turned in to an eye-opening experience that has enriched my understanding of media coverage in the US and around the world.

Click here to contact Tayler Overschmidt.

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