Critical Thinking: Was It Right to Suppress the Controversial Cartoons Put Out by Charlie Hebdo?

Critical Thinking: Was It Right to Suppress the Controversial Cartoons Put Out by Charlie Hebdo?

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, some newspapers either declined to print or blur out the controversial cartoons that drew the ire of the terrorists, fearing similar violent reactions. Was it right to suppress these images, even though they were a major part of the story? And what would you have done?

Cory Dawson, 22, junior, University of Vermont (Burlington, Vt.)
Johnson is the current editor of the Vermont Cynic, the student newspaper at the University of Vermont, where he is a political science major. He has also worked at VTDigger, an investigative news non-profit based out of Montpelier, Vt., where he managed video production and collaborated on investigation pieces.

Many have said that self-censoring the Charlie Hebdo cartoons was a matter of respect, a matter of taste, or a matter of safety. There were some brave publications that printed the cartoons after the attacks—mostly small, European (French, specifically) and known for being provocative.

There was one magazine that actually did an original cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad for their very next issue: Charlie Hebdo.

That defiance speaks to a fundamental truth: the limits of free speech are only realized when current limits are challenged. Sitting safely in the middle ground does little for readers and nothing for free speech. Charlie Hebdo understands this.

The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and CNN all did not show the images. But these titans of media wouldn’t say they’re fundamentally different from Charlie Hebdo.

Yet, when people think their lives are in jeopardy, self-censorship is much more palatable. If these publications distributed the images to their millions of readers, they would have also been asking every single one of their employees to be defiant in the face of perceived danger. It felt dangerous to work for a publication after the massacre in Paris.

The decision to self-censor that was made by most American publications, however legitimate, only lead to questioning by their readership, not firebombs or massacres.

The images were the story in a lot of ways. A five-second Google search will reveal them. By not showing them, they devalue the suffering Charlie Hebdo endures and refuses readers the full message. During this episode, too many people were worried about who they may offend rather than telling the whole story.

This is where I stand as well. If this story affected my campus and made the images newsworthy, I would print them. Drawing the ire of terrorists wouldn’t be a risk at a school newspaper in Vermont—activist campus groups would do the worst damage. There is no reason not to tell the whole story.

Carolyn Washburn, 52, editor, Cincinnati (Ohio) Enquirer
In addition to being editor, Washburn is also vice-president of the Enquirer and She previously was the editor at The Des Moines Register and The Idaho Statesman. She has also been a business reporter and editor in Lansing, Mich. and Rochester, N.Y.

We actually discussed this because we include a USA Today section of nation and world news in our print newspaper and through, and because we debated sharing an image of a Charlie Hebdo cover through our social media accounts.

I tend to consider two issues in a situation like this. First, is the piece of information valuable in helping readers understand the issue or situation? Second, who are the stakeholders here? Who is affected by this most, and how?

There is value in this information. If an image is part of the news, I think readers need to see it. I think readers should see photos of violence and death in war. I think readers should see a family’s anguish at the scene of a crime. Feeling is a powerful part of understanding. You can’t understand the depth of feeling or passion that motivates people without seeing what they experienced.

But I think there is a fine line between being informative and being gratuitous. A small photo of one of the covers did publish in our USA Today section. It included a note from USA Today editors that explained that it was published because it was important to understanding what had happened.

But I chose not to publish photos of the Charlie Hebdo covers through our Enquirer/ social media channels. That’s where my second consideration—who is affected—came into play. Publishing more photos would have been hurtful to a large group within my community. I consulted with the president of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati to better understand why Muslims are offended by images of the prophet Muhammad. I also considered that the photos were widely available from other sources, and we had nothing unique or local to add. I didn’t want people to perceive we were publishing them just to get shares.

So we left it at the small photo in our nation/world section, and I think readers were served in Cincinnati.

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Published: March 25, 2015


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