Media's blank out option can be double edged

There is something truly distressing and upsetting about a blank front page or editorial column.

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Published: Tue 22 Oct 2019, 9:50 PM

Last updated: Tue 22 Oct 2019, 11:51 PM

The print media in Australia sent out an eloquent message by blanking out its front pages to protest the government's secrecy laws, often used to justify censorship of sensitive news. This is an oft-used option by media, and in recent times has had universal appeal. Largely because it directly targets the public and makes them conversant with the issue in a very dramatic and personal fashion.

Unlike the more prosaic and opaque dissertations that people do not read or fail to understand, the use of the blank space gets the public opinion mobilised so much faster. There is something truly distressing and upsetting about a blank front page or editorial column.

From the point of view of the consolidation of various media organs this sort of a planned protest is an expression of strength. And the blank space is not the only option. Not so long ago President Trump's hostility to the Press resulted in the Boston Globe orchestrating a 150- newspaper strong common purpose editorial that struck a chord.

The blank space was used as far back as 1977 when Indian media protested the gag order issued during Indira Gandhi's Emergency. The editorial columns were printed with no words in them. Nicaragua did it against the Ortega regime. South Africa in 1986 as apartheid crumbled went blank to indicate their outrage at being curtailed. In 2012 Hungarian papers did much the same to hit out against a specific bill. In Lebanon, papers have done it often in regular fashion.

So while it does pay dividends and forces the government to swiftly revisit the issue as the public pressure mounts, the inherent weakness in the exercise of the blank out is manifold. For one you are, as media, assuming that your reader has not got enough sense to appreciate the words and understand the issue and it ramifications. Since it is a financial transaction with the reader should he or she not be party to the decision and not have it taken in absentia. That is a rude presumption as is the 'ganging up' element when, multiple papers do it simultaneously.

Then again, there are no more stairs after this unless the whole paper goes blank. So it cannot be used frequently for then it loses its value. Purists also believe that when media engages in this exercise it belies its own raison d'etre which is to inform and not presume.

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