Monday, April 19, 2010

Offensive Images

• When and how to publish graphic/offensive pictures is the subject of much debate, as is what justifies altering the editorial content of a photograph.

• Trying to decide if and how to publish graphic images should be handled on a case by case basis.

• Audience should always factor into the decision-making process, as it is the purpose of a free press to inform citizens and to maximize truth-telling through authentic reporting, while minimizing harm.

Key Questions to ask:

• Is it freedom of expression, or is it unnecessary provocation? Will the publication of the image jeopardize a law enforcement investigation?

• Is there an acceptable middle ground between showing the truth and minimizing the harm of insult?

• Are there any alternatives to publishing the picture(s)?

• How does/do the image(s) relate to the viewing audience and/or the individuals involved in the crime?

• Should you consider explaining your rationale to your readers and viewers?

Real World Application: What would you do?

• When caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad were republished in early 2006, after Muslim leaders called attention to the 12 images, it set off rioting throughout the Islamic world. Embassies were burned and people were killed. The cartoons originated with a conservative Danish daily newspaper, Jyllands-Posten.

• After the rioting and killing started, it was difficult for media in the Western world to ignore the cartoons, and every time a major protest broke out, the more likely it was that the cartoons would be published. The violent reaction made it difficult not to show audiences what all the fuss was about. What if each publication set off a new wave of protests?

• Would you publish the image(s)?

• If not, by what means would you inform the public?

What would you do – continued:

• In this case, publishers are dealing with a federal law enforcement issue, and one that could possibly result in more violence between countries. While there may not have been one specific entity telling reporters not to publish, issues of national and global attention should obviously be handled with extreme care.

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

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

• There are several options for you, the media outlet. You could publish all 12 cartoons on the front page, or show them in connection with riot scenes on your newscast. At the other extreme, you could simply describe one or two of them. Many newspapers and broadcasters made reference to one picture of Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban. Or you could provide a link to a website where they could be viewed.

Ethical Decision:

• The New York Times decided not to publish the images, understanding why the drawings would be provocative and instead used word descriptions saying: "One cartoon depicts Muhammad with a turban in the shape of a bomb. Another shows him at the gates of heaven, arms raised, saying to men who seem to be suicide bombers, 'Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins.' A third has devil's horns emerging from his turban…”

• The Mercury News opted to publish a picture of a German newspaper with one of the offending cartoons (which was reproduced at less than 1-1/2 by 1-1/2 inches.) After some public backlash, the newspaper apologized to readers the next day but noted rightly that the images "are so much a part of this ongoing story."

-Kristina Kenney

No comments: