To Publish Or Not To Publish Charlie Hebdo – That Is The Question. The Answer Is In The Code of Ethics

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Stefanie Chernow

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings and this senseless waste of life, journalists and media have been fiercely divided on the topic of how to show offensive and graphic material.

Some news outlets believe they must publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons not just for their news values, but also in defence of press freedom and democracy. In a leaked email from Al Jazeera staff debating the publication of the Muslim prophet, one staff member wrote “If a large enough group of someone is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization.”

Likewise The Slate’s Editor-in-chief Julia Turner, defended her choice to republish the controversial cartoons as a necessary benefit for the readers: “We also opted not to obscure images of the work that appeared on posters and magazine covers in news photos of events today in Paris—again, because our readers want an unobscured view of what’s going on.”

However, many other news media have decided not to publish the cartoons. Some may be afraid of the consequences, others choosing to defend their basic editorial values of not promoting hate speech. The former is a victim of self-censorship, the latter is taking an ethical path, by not using acts of intolerance to promote tolerance.

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 gray 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.

Tom Kent, Standards Editor for the AP and a leading figure in the Ethical Journalism Network, explained “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…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.”

The community of journalism is tight-knit and we tend to stand together. After all, an attack on one is an attack on us all is the root of the powerful message of Je Suis Charlie. It’s a sentiment we have felt earlier in the past year when we have seen reporters were targeted by ISIS for kidnappings and brutal executions. As an industry we should stand together in solidarity when a colleague falls.

But we are nor sheep, being led unthinkingly through a moral maze by only one strand of opinion. We have to make our own choices. A journalist gets into the game wanting to speak truth to power and, rightfully, to challenge censorship of any kind.

Yet we can make different decisions and still be ethical. Good editorial judgment is the principle to apply; this is not a matter of censorship. If it was not editorial policy to promote hate speech before the Charlie Hebdo shootings, why publish images afterwards that appear to run counter to the code of ethics? Some may argue that this is another way the killers can manipulate the press agenda.

The publication and sharing of the video showing the execution of the French policeman by one of the killers is another questionable editorial decision. In the extremely graphic and disturbing video, shared on numerous of social media platforms and through reputable media organisations, it depicts Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim and French officer, wounded on the ground and the attacker shooting him point-blank to the head. Some mitigated the impact by pixilating the face of the victim; others did not.

Although the video added to the story in a dramatic way, the information itself fails to meet ethical standards when it reinforces inhumanity and feeds sensationalism. Can a similar case be made for the publishing of the graphic cartoon? Describing the cartoons rather than republishing may be a viable and ethical alternative, particularly for audiences where there is a high degree of sensitivity over the issue.

Journalists need to take a lot into consideration before they publish – their audience, the context, their own established values – and above all the responsibility to act ethically when breaking the news. The family of the policeman shot on the streets of Paris were also victims and their suffering enhanced by the publication of his barbaric murder around the world. In a brave statement, the family requested that no retaliation be taken against the Islamic community and to end the cycle of hate – it will not bring back the dead.

The republishing of the offensive cartoons also bears consequences. Already a German tabloid has been firebombed after it republished the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Speculation as to how the shootings will affect French politics and the Muslim community are already underway, where the far-right’s rhetoric of a war against extreme Muslims and migrants is getting fired up.

As journalists, there are times when we must make a stand. But decision makers in the newsroom must remember that responsible free speech does not imply a free for all. The publishing of the cartoons must be seriously weighed for its news value and the dangers of creating atmosphere of further hate.

The Charlie Hebdo front page this week of a tearful Prophet Mohammed will be republished everywhere, and perhaps rightly so, but that does not mean it is always right to publish potentially offensive cartoons. Each case must be finely judged and the balance of impact and editorial value weighed.

The use of a gun against a pen is never acceptable and journalists can stand with Charlie Hebdo without agreeing with Charlie’s tactics, and that doesn’t mean they are the lesser for their decision to fight hate with tolerance.

Here is the Ethical Journalism Network’s five-point test for reporting on hate speech. Below is a section from the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics on minimizing harm to serve as a reminder during breaking news:

Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should:

  • Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
  • Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.
  • Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
  • Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
  • Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
  • Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.
  • Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.
  • Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
  • Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.
  • Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.

Photo: Flickr CC Gertrud K.
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