Dear Dan: Should College Media Publish the Controversial Charlie Hebdo Cartoons?
Dear Dan is a CMM series featuring perspectives and advice on serious and quirky college media issues of the moment. Most installments include a question or quandary submitted by a student journalist, professional journalist, journalism professor or student press adviser.
Dear Dan: With the global spotlight currently shining on the shootings in Paris and the provocative publication Charlie Hebdo, should student newspapers and other college media publish or post the magazine’s more controversial covers and cartoons?
From what I’ve learned like many others over the past 36 hours or so, Charlie Hebdo is a spare-no-one attack dog of a satirical newsmagazine in France that has accrued many headlines, enemies and fans for its gung-ho commentary and editorial illustrations.
Cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in embarrassing situations and weakened states have apparently been the most combustible fire-starters for the magazine over the years. (For the uninitiated, it is a deadly sin to display Muhammad in any image, and similarly sacrilegious to characterize him as anything other than strong and virtuous.) The Charlie Hebdo images have drawn the impassioned ire of some members of the Muslim community and triggered death threats taken seriously enough that its now-slain editor had a bodyguard and the newsroom building was at times watched by police.
In the wake of the attack, audience interest in the magazine — and the images that reportedly triggered the cold-blooded slaying — is intense and immense. At the same time, they remain provocative, possibly more so given their connection to this heinous act, turning off editors who don’t want to offend readers or place their staff in harm’s way.
Professional news media at the highest levels are literally split down the middle in deciding whether — and how — to display the covers and cartoons. As The Washington Post confirms, some outlets are showing them in full and providing context for readers not familiar with French or the topic being satirized — citing tenets such as newsworthiness, free speech and comprehensive storytelling. Others are partially or fully blurring them or obscuring them through strategic cropping. Still others have chosen to simply explain them in words, deeming the visuals as sensational distractions that may unnecessarily lead to mass reader protest, show disrespect to a recognized religion or steal reader interest from the atrocity itself.
To be clear, there is no right answer.
Among the questions I’d advise a student editorial team to consider when grappling with this type of decision:
Are the images essential to the telling of the story?
How does their perceived sensationalism or their potential to anger and offend compare to their outright newsworthiness?
Are the images in any way illegal or unfairly hurtful to the people or groups depicted?
How will they play with your audience specifically (AKA student-age readers and individuals on your campus or surrounding community)?
What are the outlet’s policies or accepted practices when dealing with the hot-button topics involved (in this case, religion)? Any related controversies in past semesters that might offer a clue about what readers will accept or what in hindsight editors would have liked to take back or do differently?
What will be your 10-second and 90-second defense against those who question or criticize your decision?
Of course, nowadays, the complexities surrounding these types of ethical conundrums are ever-greater. I’m reminded of a post I published a while back about a student reporter on the scene of a deadly car crash at the SXSW music festival. One of her sentiments when faced with the sickeningly bloody crime scene: Gruesome photos of the victims are being shared all over the Internet and social media anyway, so by publishing similar photos all the media is doing is amplifying the gruesomeness.
Does that factor in here at all? Should student outlets steer clear of publishing the Charlie Hebdo images — instead either linking to them (see HuffPost screenshot) or living comfortably with the knowledge that determined readers will surely see them elsewhere? Hmm.
The biggest element embedded in this decision that is at least somewhat unique to student media is the safety factor. With most campus outlets officially or in spirit affiliated with their schools, there may be a heightened fear of doing or publishing anything that would put students in danger (and by extension leave a school open to lawsuits, sanctions or criminal investigations).
For example, The Columbia Daily Spectator at Columbia University temporarily closed its newsroom this past summer after an ex-con threatened the paper over some old articles published about him. Yet, in that case, the guy actually snuck into the newsroom building, singled out the paper by name and issued a threat that included the word “kill.” He said later the whole thing was a misunderstanding, but the Spec didn’t take any chances. Would The New York Times brass have made the same newsroom-shutdown call?
My main snippets of advice to student media leaders: If you do run the images, be sure your readers understand why. I’d also attribute any related notes, letters or statements explaining the decision to the outlet and not any individual editors. And I’d think very hard before sharing controversial images like these on the front page, homepage or any other spot that doesn’t allow readers to choose for themselves whether to click, scroll or turn the page to see them. Lastly, ensure the voices of Muslim students are heard in the larger conversation about this attack and its many implications, in the spirit of fairness, education and comprehensive coverage.