Critical Thinking: Were Newspapers Right to Censor ‘Doonesbury’?

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By: Nu Yang

Critical Thinking: Were Newspapers Right to Censor 'Doonesbury'?

Q: Should newspapers censor controversial cartoons from their readers, such as the recent “Doonesbury” cartoon series centered on the Texas abortion law?

Biz Carson, 21, senior, Indiana University (Bloomington, Ind.)
Carson is a May 2012 graduate of Indiana University, where she served as art director of Inside magazine and the Indiana Daily student newspaper. She majored in journalism, Spanish, and international studies. This summer, Carson is interning as a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot before starting her career as a designer at Gannett’s Phoenix design studio in August.

A: Cartoons have always had a place in American newspapers, either as part of the funny pages or as a feature on the editorial pages. When newspapers are looking at whether or not to censor a cartoon, I believe the cartoon should be treated just as an opinion column would be.

The recent “Doonesbury” series on the Texas abortion law is a good example of the lack of censorship standards for cartoons. Many newspapers went ahead and ran the cartoons as a matter of free speech. Some newspapers censored it because they thought the explicit material went against the nature or spirit of the funny pages.

Before censoring cartoons, newspapers should consider the context as well as the content of the cartoon. “Doonesbury” is a political satire cartoon series, so it should not have been a surprise that it would cover the highly politicized issue of abortion. Some papers run “Doonesbury” regularly on their opinion pages, but many run it alongside “Garfield” and other comics in the funny pages.

If a newspaper feels strongly that a political cartoon is too opinionated for its funny pages, then the cartoon should run on the opinion page. However, newspapers should not shy away from printing a cartoon because of a controversial subject, unless they would censor an opinion article on the same topic. Newspapers were already covering the Texas abortion law in their health section, on the front page, and in their opinion section.

There is no reason to censor controversial cartoons from a newspaper’s readership. Let the reader decide. It comes down to a matter of free speech — something newspapers should be fighting for and not against. Cartoons often present issues in a satirical, funny way that articles do not capture, and they provide a visual representation of a serious topic that should not be censored from readers.

Chris Hardie, 48, executive editor, La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune and the River Valley Newspaper Group
Hardie joined the La Crosse Tribune in 1983, has worked in various reporter and editor capacities, and has received more than two-dozen state and national journalism awards. He is a past Lee Enterprises President’s Award winner.

A: Absolutely, if we feel it is necessary. We did not publish the specific “Doonesbury” series in question, because the content contained graphic language that was not appropriate for younger readers of the comics page.

We are ultimately responsible for all of the content that is published in our paper, and it’s essential that we are accountable to our community with those decisions. We would not publish a graphic crime or accident scene photo in the paper if we felt that it overstepped sensitivity boundaries. Why would we treat syndicated content any differently?

Readers trust us to present content in an appropriate fashion, and we walk that fine line every day. Cries of censorship that often accompany publicized events like the recent “Doonesbury” series ring hollow when there are many, many outlets for readers to view that strip if they really want to. Plus we made the decision to publish it on our website for those who wanted to read it.

Being accountable goes hand-in-hand with being credible, and that’s the foundation of a newspaper. With the lines of journalism becoming ever so blurry amid the noise of bloggers and talk shows, newspapers can still stand out as being different. We’re different, because we carefully consider the impact of what we publish.

That does not mean that the sharp stick that pokes the community eye goes away — that’s also an important newspaper role. But we don’t publish controversy for its own sake if it doesn’t serve the community. I’d rather offend a few people who complain about censorship than needlessly offend a larger chunk of our paper’s audience. That’s called editing.

One thought on “Critical Thinking: Were Newspapers Right to Censor ‘Doonesbury’?

  • June 13, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    Since 1970 newspapers have elected to not run a particular sequence of Doonesbury. One week — in which a character called John Mitchell “Guilty, guilty, guilty!” in 1974 — was dropped by the Washington Post and was part of the submission that won Garry Trudeau a Pulitzer in 1975. But that is not censorship, it is an editorial decision, one we fully respect. Garry has always been open to editing, and we realize that there is occasionally material that might not run in every newspaper in a diverse client list from Maine to California. That is one of the risks of political and social satire. Lee Salem President Universal Uclick


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