Sensitivity in times of high tension

One of the responses to my last column, “Living values” (January 26, 2015), questioned the decision of this newspaper not to reproduce the images carried by the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo . The argument: the newspaper took a strong editorial stand against the killers, and if the aim of the killers is to prevent the world from seeing those images, then republishing them would be the fitting answer to the intolerant criminals. Further, the reproduction would be an act of solidarity with the publication that lost 10 of its staff, including four of its top cartoonists, to cold-blooded murderers. This argument constructs the world in a neat bipolar manner.

The role of a responsible media organisation is to go beyond the reductionist narrative of ‘you are either with us or against us.’ It tries to retain the space for grey in an information ecology that is fast turning black and white. The choices of news organisations to publish or reject images are not based on solidarity. They are determined by their own code of ethics and governed by three broad principles of journalism: truth, independence and the need to minimise harm. In the case of Charlie Hebdo , most of the major publications of the world took a principled stand against the ruthless hounds. But many of them felt that republishing the cartoons may not be the best response to the intolerant sect.

The Hindu was not the only publication that decided not to reproduce those images. The Guardian , The New York Times and the news agency, The Associated Press , were among many that refrained from publishing those images. The editorial judgment of The Hindu and the internal debates in news organisations and professional networks like the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) are important pointers for readers to understand how crucial editorial judgments are made on matters that are emotionally explosive.

Ethical path, not self-censorship

“All these choices, each with an ethical base, show that this is not a simple matter of black and white choice in the newsroom. It’s a deeply troubling and grey area of editorial decision-making. These choices show that journalism that aspires to be in the public interest and driven by values of mission needs to lean on its ethical codes and traditions of editorial independence if it aims to provide sensitive and careful reporting in times of high tension,” says Stefanie Chernow of EJN. She makes a fine distinction between self-censorship and an ethical path of not using acts of intolerance to promote tolerance.

Tom Kent, my colleague in the board of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editor of the AP , explained why the news agency decided not to carry those images. He wrote: “ AP tries hard not to be a conveyor belt for images and actions aimed at mocking or provoking people on the basis of religion, race or sexual orientation. We did not run the “Danish cartoons” mocking Muhammad in 2005, or the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the same type. While we run many photos that are politically or socially provocative, there are areas verging on hate speech and actions where we feel it is right to be cautious … We learned long ago that some of our news decisions will be controversial. While there’s certainly a slippery slope that leads to avoiding any image that could cause offense, there’s an equally slippery one that leads to suspending our editorial judgment and allowing our news service to be hijacked by whatever offensive image is circulating on a given day.”

The Guardian ’s editorial, “ The Guardian view on Charlie Hebdo : show solidarity, but in your own voice,” is an important read for all those who are committed to free speech and responsible journalism. It read: “The real clash is between free speech and a tiny number of jihadist murderers. We do not have to alter our editorial values to be on the right side of that divide.” The editorial made it clear that the chief goal of terrorists is to make us change our behaviour and that it’s best to deny them that victory.

Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of The New York Times , wrote about how the decision not to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons was made. Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, started out the day convinced that he should publish the images, both because of their newsworthiness and out of a sense of solidarity with the slain journalists and the right of free expression, but changed his mind twice. He felt that there was a line between gratuitous insult and satire, and most of the cartoons were gratuitous insult. He told the Public Editor that it would be deemed unacceptable if he were to show the most incendiary images from the newspaper.

If we recognise that a newspaper is an interlocking public, as espoused by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, then we can understand the crucial reasons behind not reproducing provocative images. Let’s remember Scot Fitzgerald’s dictum: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”


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