To Publish or Not to Publish  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2006

To Publish or Not to Publish   

American news organizations and the inflammatory Danish cartoons. Posted February 9, 2006

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


There's no rulebook to turn to for many of journalism's tough calls.

Sure, there are the black-and-white no-brainers like fabrication and plagiarism. But the hard ethical questions come in shades of gray. They often require delicate balancing acts, weighing competing arguments that both have merit.

Like the dilemma facing American newspapers over whether to publish the Danish cartoons that have spawned riotous protests around the globe.

Clearly the cartoons have outraged many Muslims. Isn't that reason enough to stay away from them? After all, you can always describe them, so you can give your audience the gist without inflaming part of the community.

That's the way most of America's gatekeepers have come down.

A lonely few have boldly published the cartoons. They argue that the cartoons have become an integral part of a major news story. Don't their readers deserve to see them so that they can make up their own minds?

Many editors I respect took position A. NPR's vice president for news, Bill Marimow, wrote to Ombusman Jeffrey Dvorkin that he had changed his mind on the subject as he deliberated. "[T]he bottom line for me is that the cartoon is so highly offensive to millions of Muslims that it's preferable to describe it in words rather than posting it on the Web. In this case, I believe that our audience can, through our reports--on radio and the Web--get a very detailed sense of what's depicted in the cartoon. By not posting it on the Web, we demonstrate a respect for deeply held religious beliefs."

Similarly, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told USA Today that after a "long and vigorous debate," he decided that publishing the cartoon would be "perceived as a particularly deliberate insult" by Muslims. "Like any decision to withhold elements of a story," he added, "this was neither easy nor entirely satisfying, but it feels like the right thing to do."

Amanda Bennett, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, went in the opposite direction. "This is the kind of work that newspapers are in business to do," Bennett told her paper. "We're running this in order to give people a perspective of what the controversy's about, not to titillate, and we have done that with a whole wide range of images throughout our history."

She was joined by Rich Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman, who told Editor & Publisher: "It is one thing to respect other people's faiths and religion, but it goes beyond where I would go to accept their taboos in the context of our freedoms and our society."

It's a close call, one where reasonable people can disagree. But I come down with Bennett and Oppel. The cartoons are essential to understanding the story. They shouldn't be withheld from readers. And while as a words guy I hate to say this, mere description is no substitute for seeing the actual image.

So props to these two editors for taking a brave stance. It would have been far easier to go the other way.

Some critics have accused editors who declined to run the cartoons of cowardice. I think that's out of line. Many have made strong, well-reasoned cases for their actions, and I see no reason to impute devious motives to them.

Earlier today I discussed this subject on Kojo Nnamdi's show on WAMU radio in Washington D.C. One of my fellow panelists was Ann Telnaes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist. Telnaes expressed the fear that the Danish contretemps and the flap over Tom Toles' Washington Post cartoon that so upset the Joint Chiefs of Staff will cause editors to become more timid, more careful to avoid offense.

That's the last thing we need.

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