A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Offensive Images

By Quill

WHAT: The cartoons originated with a conservative Danish daily newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. After learning that the author of a children’s book on Muhammad couldn’t find an illustrator who wasn’t afraid of retribution, the newspaper sponsored a contest soliciting depictions of the prophet.

It was time to stop being cowed by Islamic fundamentalists, the Danes said, time to confront European media’s timid self-censorship. If we don’t, as the saying goes, the terrorists will have won.

After the rioting and killing started, it was difficult to ignore the cartoons. Some media elected merely to describe the cartoons, not to print them. Yet every time a major protest broke out, the more likely it was that the cartoons would be published. The violent reaction made it difficult for news media in the Western world not to show their audiences what all the fuss was about. Predictably, perhaps, each publication set off a new wave of protests.

Question: Do we publish the cartoons?

WHO: The stakeholders include the local Islamic community; Muslims around the world; people at sites that might be targeted by riots; your newspaper or TV station and its reputation for truth-telling and fairness; and readers and viewers, who have an interest in seeing what is driving such outrage. You may be able to think of others whose interest in the outcome of your decision should be considered.

WHY: Several principles are at issue here. Is it freedom of expression? Or is it unnecessary provocation? Is there an acceptable middle ground between showing the blunt truth and minimizing the harm of insult?

Some critics said Western media trivialized the cause and exaggerated the reaction. Only a few thousand of the billion or so Muslims worldwide rioted. And this was only the latest manifestation of a long history of bullying, humiliation and marginalization of Muslims by Europe and the United States.

Or did the manipulation come from the Islamic side? Things were comparatively calm until a few leaders decided to use the cartoons to provoke cultural differences between Islam and nonbelievers. Some say it’s blasphemy to depict any image of Muhammad, although Islamic scholars disagree on whether that’s the right interpretation.

It could be argued that deciding not to publish the cartoons is not cowardly self-censorship but good judgment. After all, they were readily available on the Internet. A responsible journalist’s intent should be to inform, not to offend.

HOW: Media outlets around the world chose to handle it differently. Some printed the cartoons, while many newspapers and broadcasters made reference to one picture of Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban. Some provided a link to a Web site where they could be viewed.

An anecdote: One group of mass communication ethics students, when presented with this scenario, was ready to decide not to reprint the offending images, just describe them. Then one student located the caricatures on the Internet and called them up on her computer. The students, after looking at the images, changed their mind. The cartoons, they explained, weren’t as offensive as they had imagined they were. Lame, perhaps, and not very funny, but hardly anything to get exercised about. Of course, this was an ethics class in America.