September 21, 2012
CALGARY, AB, Sep 21, 2012/ Troy Media/ – What was the publisher thinking?
What audience was he attempting to serve?
What aspect of the lives of citizens of France was he defending or challenging?
The answer to all the above is that it doesn’t matter what he was thinking, who he thought he was serving, or what message he was trying to get across.
The act of publishing a series of editorial cartoons depicting the Islamic Prophet Mohammed was an ill-considered and unprofessional journalism decision, even for a magazine that labels itself satirical and thrives on being contrarian.
There is no question that the French publisher of Charlie Hebdo has the right to publish the cartoons. Choosing to do so, however, has angered legions of Muslims, and not just the more militant among them, who have also been violently responding in recent days to a You Tube posted piece of an anti-Islam video. Islam prohibits the physical depiction of Mohammed in any form, though unflattering or degrading images must worsen their impact.
The freedom to publish is supported either by convention or formally articulated in constitutional documents across the Western world. This right is an essential, foundational notion in the development and maintenance of democratic societies.
There are some restrictions of course. Defamation laws discourage reporting that spreads false information maliciously about someone, though you can’t defame a deceased person. Canada, among other western countries, has a law against inciting hatred of an identifiable group, though the act of publishing the cartoons would not be sufficient in itself for a newspaper publisher to face such charges.
The issue with the cartoons, then, is not an issue of being free to publish. There is no evidence to suggest that this inherent right is in any more jeopardy than normal in France or in other corners of the democratic world. But knowingly publishing material that will exacerbate a challenging social concern, and likely incite a violent response, violates another essential journalistic construct. The information produced by journalists is on some level a public service, and need be considerate of community standards and the context of a given issue or circumstance.
The c-word (context) is the missing link in much journalism, which can tend to focus on what happened and less on why it happened. Our societies are profoundly complex organisms that are constantly adjusting to new pressures and realities – economically, politically and socially. The movement of refugees and immigrants has always promoted tension in the host communities, which are effectively forced to admit new languages, foods, values, dress, religions and so on.
In no way am I suggesting that editors should permanently forfeit the option to publish images of Mohammed, but in choosing to do so they had better have a reason beyond the fact that they can. The argument that Christians see many unflattering images of Jesus in their lives and manage to get by is lame in the extreme, and acquiescing on some level to Muslims and their beliefs is not a sign of weakness.
Neither am I suggesting journalists should shy away from reporting difficult issues in general. To the contrary, with France facing significant social change and challenges as its already large Muslim population expands, the country’s institutions and its media must engage and even frame the discussion. But it has to be done responsibly. Raising tough questions with all concerned is key, while giving people a metaphoric slap in the face is a waste of a publishing pulpit.
The tensions aren’t the same yet in Canada; though we have newer immigrant communities from Asia, India, Pakistan, Africa that need to adjust to life in Canada, while traditional Canadians need to adjust as well to change they bring. It isn’t always a pretty picture, with fear, ignorance and racism often lying just below the surface of many interactions. We will most certainly face more and new challenges in Canada as we decide if and how public education and other social institutions need be changed to serve a country with an expanding population of new Canadians.
There is a lot of celebrity and bizarre-tale news out there that exists solely to attract large audiences and their money, but there is also a wealth of information that informs and helps citizens make sense of their communities and their world. Publishing the cartoons may fall into the first category, but they most certainly do not fall into the second, and it is the second category of news we need now more than ever.
Troy Media Columnist Terry Field is an associate professor and program chair of the journalism major in the Bachelor of Communication program at Mount Royal University, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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