The media’s ability to cover the Vietnam War without censorship was unlike anything that came before or has happened since. The unprecedented access of journalists to officers meant that, for the only time in American history, the American public had an unedited view into the daily life of war. However, this unfettered freedom came at a cost, including journalists who died on the battlefield, as well as resentment from the military establishment, which did not always like what was being reported.
The work of journalists such as Horst Faas, Dan Rather, and Peter Arnett was game changing. But it also called into question whether or not full disclosure, all the time, was a good idea. When the first war in Iraq began, journalists were no longer given carte blanche access to troops, officers, or battlefields. Peter Arnett, who covered the war in Vietnam extensively, and who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage, was frustrated at what he saw as censorship of the press. However, military leaders had decided that the risks to security, to the civilian journalists, and to the war effort outweighed the benefit of transparency that we’d had in Vietnam.
The point of my history lesson is that there are times when it makes sense to censor or at least limit, what you put out there in the public domain. The US military recognizes this, and so should you. To be effective in your career, it is critical that you know when you should self-censor:
When what you say will offend someone. You want to make friends and influence people, not discourage them from wanting to help you.
When what you’re about to say is inappropriate for your audience. Everyone is on a “need to know” basis, and not everyone needs to know everything.
When you have an inflammatory opinion. Save it for your personal social media, but keep it out of the workplace.
When what you’re going to say is self-deprecating. When your boss says, “Great presentation!” and your gut reaction is to tell him how poorly you delivered it, stop. Just say “thank you,” and move on. Self-effacing comments Woman with mouth coveredare tiresome and cast you in a negative light.
When you are dying to comment on something relating to politics or religion. I know it can be hard, especially in an election year, to keep your opinions to yourself, but it’s really the best, most self-preserving move you can make. Save your opinions on politics and religion for the dinner table at home.
When it’s something really personal. Your coworkers and managers don’t need to know everything about you. Keep it friendly, but professional.
When you’re not sure whether or not you should say it. Err on the side of caution. Always.
The Bottom Line
Think before you speak, click “send,” or post. Evaluate the message you’re trying to convey and decide if it’s appropriate. Always consider the audience, and proceed with empathy.