As the world struggled to understand the violence in Paris, where 12 cartoonists and other staff at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were gunned down by Islamic extremists, media outlets were faced with a challenge: Should they publish the offensive images that may have helped trigger that violence? What’s interesting is that almost all of those who chose to publish them were online-media outlets, and almost all of those who refrained were traditional players.
Why was there such a clear divide between online and offline entities in the way they responded to the incident? Is it because digital media is seen as more of a lawless frontier, or because print and TV are seen as more permanent and therefore more risky? Or is it because digital-media outlets feel more compelled to protect freedom of speech because they feel more vulnerable than mainstream outlets? Or was it just for traffic?
In the same way that the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie trended on social media around the globe, as people tried to express their sympathy for the killings and their support for free speech, many media-watchers argued that news outlets such as CNN and the New York Times should have shown their support by printing or broadcasting the Charlie Hebdo images, even if they would not otherwise have done so because of rules about offensive content.
Free speech vs. standards
Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis argued that not showing the images amounted to cowardice on the part of most major media outlets, saying: “If you’re the paper of record, if you’re the highest exemplar of American journalism, if you expect others to stand by your journalists when they are threatened, if you respect your audience to make up its own mind, then damnit stand by Charlie Hebdo and inform your public. Run the cartoons.”
Among those who ran some of the images was BuzzFeed, which also tweeted and then pulled together a list of the media organizations that were “censoring” the images by blurring them out or not showing them at all. Others who ran the magazine covers and other images included The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Business Insider and Gawker. BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith wouldn’t even tell his own reporter why the outlet chose to run the images, but Noah Shachtman of the Daily Beast told CNN that he felt compelled to run the cartoons as a show of respect:
CNN, AP and the NYT say no
As media writer Dylan Byers noted in a post on the response, outlets like the New York Times, CNN, Fox News and AP either didn’t show the cartoons or blurred them out. In most cases, these organizations referred to their standards on offensive content, or said that they were not displaying them out of respect for Muslim viewers or readers — or that they were concerned about the safety of their staff.
The New York Times‘ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, said she asked the paper’s executive editor about the decision not to run the images and he said he was torn between showing support for free speech and publishing offensive content, and decided the NYT should err on the side of not offending Muslim readers.
Some critics of Charlie Hebdo argued that the images were clearly racist and that re-publishing them was wrong, even for those who opposed the killings and wanted to show their support for free speech. Others, however, said that showing them was the only way to truly stand up for the right to freedom of speech, because the true test of that commitment is to support even speech that you find offensive.
The Guardian in Britain wrote an editorial in which it said the paper was solidly in support of Charlie Hebdo’s right to print whatever they wanted to, and that it was donating 100,000 pounds to the newspaper so that it could continue to publish — but that the Guardian would not be printing the images because “defending the right of someone to say whatever they like does not oblige you to repeat their words.”
Principle or traffic?
Interestingly enough, one of the few traditional outlets that chose to show one of the offensive images was the Washington Post. Although photos did not appear in the news pages, editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt told the paper’s media writer, Erik Wemple, that the Post decided to run a Charlie Hebdo cartoon with an op-ed column because “seeing the cover will help readers understand what this is all about.”
Having talked with staffers at a number of online outlets both on and off the record, my sense is that many felt compelled to run the images because freedom of speech is a principle they want to uphold — in part because they feel that the internet is more vulnerable than mainstream media outlets like the New York Times, which are usually protected by the First Amendment.
There’s no question that online media also benefits in some ways because it is seen as less permanent than newspapers or even TV broadcasts — despite the fact that in many cases it is just as permanent if not more so, thanks to search engines, cached images and screenshots. And most traditional media outlets have to worry about their distributors as well: the newsstands and wire services and broadcast partners who might refuse to carry their content. When the internet is your distributor, that’s not a problem.
Did some outlets also run the images in part because they knew that they would be controversial and therefore good for traffic? No one will admit this, of course, for obvious reasons — but I can’t help thinking that it may have played a partial role, even for those who felt a duty to support free speech.