In the fall of 2005, a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Last week, some European and American newspapers re-published the caricatures -- some, as an act of solidarity with Jyllands-Posten and a demonstration of their collective right to free speech, and others, as a means to explain the story in its fullest context. The publication was followed by protests and violence, even death.

Now, many American news organizations face the task of explaining the intricacies of this story. Is it an issue of free speech? Religious intolerance? Radical extremism? Cultural misunderstanding?

We asked five Poynter faculty members to discuss the journalistic issues related to this controversy. You can listen to a 21-minute podcast of their conversation here, download it to your iPod by dragging this link to your iPod library, or read the edited transcript below.







Poynter Podcast: Covering the Cartoon Controversy  

Kelly McBride, Ethics Group Leader: One of the things that we've noticed here, as we've been discussing this issue, is that there are many layers, and it is, once you dig into it, a bit more complicated than the initial stories appear to indicate. It could be an issue of free speech, it could be an issue of intolerance, of ethnocentrism. So what we'd like to do today is just explore those levels of complexity, and so I have with me Bob Steele. Bob, can you talk a little bit about political cartoons as a form of commentary, and describe the nature of political cartoons and the purpose that they serve in American journalism?


Bob Steele, Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values: Political cartoons are the visual equivalent of a strong editorial or column. They should express strong opinion. They should evoke and provoke. They should evoke some sort of emotional reaction from those that see the political cartoon. In some cases, it may be anger; in some cases, it may be hope; in some cases, it may be frustration; in some cases, it may be another form of emotion. And, ideally, the political cartoons provoke someone to action. It may be a spirited discussion at the breakfast table with your partner or your child, at the water cooler with a good friend; it may prompt you to vote differently on an issue or with candidates. Political cartoons spark some sort of reaction by expressing some point of view.

Kelly McBride: Keith Woods, dean of faculty here. The very nature of political cartoons then means that editors and publishers have to look for lines, if you will, boundaries which they will not cross with a political cartoon. How do they do that?

Keith Woods, Dean of the Faculty: First and foremost, they do it by informing themselves about what those lines are, and making an informed decision, in the best of worlds, about why, in this case, they'll cross the line. And, I think, in the case of the cartoons, whose origins, whose genesis, whose motivation for existing may be none of the things that Bob just described, but simply a stick in the eye of people who very much thought that you shouldn't be depicting Muhammad at all -- in that case, I think you have to ask yourself, "Why are we reproducing these? What do we know about the issue of depicting Muhammad at all that might make this an issue for us today?" And then, based on that, "Why are we going to make the decision to go ahead and cross that line?" The problem in this case, I think, is that we, as a society, and many journalists, I think, the world around, who are not Muslim, don't really understand the issue of depicting Muhammad at its core, to even make that informed choice.

Kelly McBride: Roy, do you see a variety of values at play here?

Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar: There's certainly a conflict of values, and a conflict of different contexts. Even in the United States, even though this idea isn't always popular, when you get down to what we think of First Amendment issues, it would be easy to live in a society where speech and expression that we kind of all agree with is defended. The problem with living with the First Amendment is that the First Amendment also defends expression which is repulsive and repugnant. And that is part of our social compact that we will find ways to tolerate that. That doesn't exist in all countries and in all cultures. And so there are definitely cultures in which harm can come from the expression of certain kinds of ideas, and that's certainly true in the United States as well as in the Middle East and Europe. I see this as a classic ethical issue or problem for editors here in the United States and elsewhere. On one hand, we want to be able to portray the source of this great discontent and unrest so that we can be truly informed, and on the other hand, the reproduction of these images may make the problem worse. And so we want to tell the truth, we want to minimize harm, and those things are very, very difficult to do at the same time.

Kelly McBride: So, Keith, it's possible that you could agree with Roy, that even awful, intolerant speech needs to be defended, but as an editor of a newspaper, you would not necessarily publish that image of Muhammad.

Keith Woods: Right. You're making that decision all the time, trying to decide at which point we will cross into an arena that we know is in some way going to be offensive. Again, the most important thing is to make that decision based on knowledge about what line it is that you're crossing. The thing about diversity in general is that, in order to make that kind of informed choice, you have to know something about the culture, you have to know something about the faith, you have to know something about the history and the context before making that choice. It can't simply be based on the First Amendment and the rights that we have, because not everybody is either enjoying those rights or recognizing them as the foundation for making these kinds of ethical choices.


Kelly McBride: Bob, how does independence factor into this as an ethical issue?

Bob Steele: Well, the principle of independence, in some ways, is the fulcrum that balances the revealing of truth to the best of our ability and the obligation to minimize harm whenever possible. As journalists, whether we're reporters or editors or political cartoonists or broadcast producers, we should recognize that our primary obligation is to the public, to provide meaningful, substantive, accurate, fair information that allows citizens, be they viewers, readers, listeners, online users, to make good decisions about substantive matters. To inform and to educate. We should, as journalists, not be unduly influenced by those who would, through their own persuasion or their own threats, keep us from informing and educating. We must make smart, knowledgeable decisions. Keith's point is well-taken, in the sense that, to make a good decision in a newsroom about if and how and when we would publish this particular image here in the United States in the wake of this violence, we have to understand the ramifications of publishing. We have to talk to a variety of different individuals who would inform us so we could make that good decision. Independence is based on knowledge, independence is based on skill, but it does require us to serve a unique, essential role in a society that's different than any other professional role.

Kelly McBride: Aly, editors around the country are trying to decide, at this moment, if they should publish the cartoon in the context of covering the controversy. What would you recommend?

Aly Colón, Reporting, Writing & Editing Group Leader: I think they'd want to think about the journalistic purpose: What kind of principles do they have? How do they want to carry out those principles? And they also have to think about how they're communicating. That's what we do as journalists. We want people to hear the news that we want to provide for them, to understand it, and to take it in. And we have to find the way to make that possible for them to do that. It's important for them to take into account not only what the majority might want to see and hear and read, but also about the minority, and how they will be affected by that. That informs their decision, it doesn't necessarily dictate their decision. So, consequently, I'd have them think about alternatives. What can they do to help their readers, their viewers, their listeners understand this issue in a way that conveys the complexity that's taking place, and in a way that people will be able to receive it so that they will be able to make better decisions about it?

Kelly McBride: We've discussed a range of alternatives, including describing the images with words, rather than re-publishing them. What are some other ones that you could envision?

Aly Colón: Well, in addition to descriptions, there may be ways to find out. For some people it may be putting in the link. For other people it may be doing something like making more of a context for understanding what's taking place. In other words, more information that puts not only the information that describes the cartoon, but adds context and knowledge as to why it might be offensive in a situation like this.

Bob Steele: An example there, Kelly: The Philadelphia Inquirer, when publishing that image, said that when senior editors met at Friday afternoon's news meeting to publish the most controversial image, it was published, in their words, "discreetly," with a note explaining the rationale. So the attempt there is to give context, to not only the publishing of the image, but the context of the decision behind the publishing, so it gives some sense of the process as well as the product they're offering.

Keith Woods: I'd add one more thing to that, Bob, and that is that, again, as long as this conversation is about, as the Inquirer might suggest, the most controversial images, the ones like the bomb in the turban on Muhammad's head, that we are still beyond the threshold question, because, for so many people, it was simply re-creating, or creating for the first time, an image of Muhammad that was the first offense. So, for many Muslims, whether he has a bomb on his head isn't the issue at all, but the fact that the news organization decided, in Denmark in this case, to put anything in the newspaper was the first offense. And that's the first place to have this conversation.

Kelly McBride: There are dozens and dozens of story ideas that could come out of this conversation. Do any of you have some suggestions for story ideas for journalists who might be looking for another angle for covering this particular controversy?

Roy Peter Clark: It just occurred to me, just now, thinking about the history of the depiction of Jews as ... Christ-killers and assassins of children, which, really, is a great stain in the history of Christianity. And then it occurred to me that one of the places that I saw the most horrific, degrading, stereotypical images of Jews was in the Holocaust Museum. That's a really interesting and powerful example of context. Not just publishing them independently to test them out, or to see if they will offend within the news. But to surround it with history and context. And so, maybe there's a path there to some interesting coverage.

Aly Colón: You know, we also, Roy, might consider building on that and offering the opportunity for us to examine what taboos we as journalists tend to try to avoid when we're doing coverage ourselves. And we might ask our communities that we cover, "What are some of the issues that you feel sensitive about, and why do you feel sensitive about that? And might we have some sort of discussion about that, either orally, in print or on the air?" In some fashion that begins to open up the discussion for us to understand where our communities are.

Kelly McBride: There's a good religion story behind this, too, Aly, and that is the various ways that a faith might interpret a particular edict, such as, "Do not create an image of Muhammad." Prohibitions like that exist in many faiths.


Keith Woods: One of the things that I think journalism could do for the public right now is to provide a way to understand something that is beyond, for the most part, the understanding of a lot of people, and I don't mean necessarily that the specific understanding of how a whole group of people of one faith could get riled up about one particular issue, but the general need to be able to place myself in the shoes of someone whose life doesn't look like my life, whose faith doesn't look anything like my faith; a way to help the public to re-frame these kinds of conversations so that they don't become the polarized, false dichotomy that these debates tend to be, once, especially, they hit the media.

Roy Peter Clark: One other thing that Keith's remarks remind me of: I remember going to Wake Forest University and listening to an expert on Islam. The first thing that he did was to write the words, as I remember it, "Islam" and "Muslim" on a chalkboard. And to reveal how the basic phonemes, the basic elements of the word, were the same elements that existed in the word "Shalom." And one of the things that occurs to me here, that I hadn't thought about before, is that this prohibition against graven images is not so different than the Jewish commandment, and it's not so different than the Protestant rebellion against Catholicism. So I think maybe one of the things that may come out of this is an understanding of some of the common ground that exists between various faiths, even as one particular faith seems now to be standing out in some way for critique and inquiry.

Bob Steele: 
The challenges for journalists are considerable. When you think about 'prohibitions,' as Roy uses that word, we talk about 'traditions,' in the case of this issue with the depiction of Muhammad. 'Conventions,' within newsrooms -- what we do and don't reproduce, and what words we might use. If we take a parallel issue, the Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles' political cartoon of the American soldier whose all four limbs were amputated, and the outcry that raised with opposition from the military brass and some around the country, including families of those serving in Iraq, we find another issue in which it can be arguably offered that these political cartoons are essential for citizens to grapple with issues of public policy -- even when we find certain imagery, certain notions, certain concepts to be offensive. Whether we talk about race relations or immigration or abortion or gun control or the ravages of war or religious and cultural issues, we are inevitably going to find some territory in which there are prohibitions, traditions, conventions that may keep journalists from going into that territory. And we should find ways, I would suggest, journalistically, respectfully and meaningfully to go into that territory, again, to inform and educate in order to serve the public good.

Kelly McBride: So would you agree that, an organization that runs political cartoons, which are on one end of the spectrum in terms of provocation, do they have other obligations in terms of serving the community on a thorny issue?
 
Bob Steele: Yes. I believe when you do go into what I would call 'the deep water' with political cartoons or other kinds of material that might, in some ways, be considered offensive, you have all the more obligation in your news columns, in your report on the air for broadcasters, in online work, to substantively report on the issues, so that citizens are informed beyond being provoked.

Roy Peter Clark: There is one historical phenomenon that we should take a quick peek at here, which is that political cartoons, which were once in a way, more to the center of how a newspaper expressed its editorial opinions, have become, I would say, less powerful, less influential, more editors moving without local cartoonists, for example. I think that comes from everything from financial issues, like not wanting to hire one to, in some cases, probably, political correctness. But also, I see some newspapers -- I think the St. Pete Times does this a little, too -- where the Times is using op-ed-style kind of balance in the cartoons in the same way they might do with other kinds of editorial commentary.

Aly Colón: One thing I wanted also to encourage editors to be thinking about is to not take this just as an intellectual exercise. I think, as journalists, because we tend to use words and we think about ideas, that it is very natural for us to go to where we have been, and go to our rules and go to the way we've done things and sort of stand up for our rights. I also want to believe that, in journalism, we chronicle the journey of the people we cover, and that requires being someone who is part of the people that we cover. And to have an understanding of that, that we, too, are human, as well as being journalists.