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Ethics Case Studies
Offensive Images

WHAT: The situation. Caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad didn’t cause much of a stir when they were first published in September 2005. But when they were republished in early 2006, after Muslim leaders called attention to the 12 images, it set off rioting throughout the Islamic world. Embassies were burned; people were killed.

The cartoons originated with a conservative Danish daily newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. After learning that the author of a children’s book on Muhammad couldn’t find an illustrator who wasn’t afraid of retribution, the newspaper sponsored a contest soliciting depictions of the prophet.
It was time to stop being cowed by Islamist fundamentalists, the Danes said; time to confront European media’s timid self-censorship. If we don’t, as the saying goes, the terrorists will have won.

After the rioting and killing started, it was difficult to ignore the cartoons. Some media elected merely to describe the cartoons, not to print them. Yet every time a major protest broke out, the more likely it was that the cartoons would be published. The violent reaction made it difficult for news media in the Western world not to show their audiences what all the fuss was about. Predictably, perhaps, each publication set off a new wave of protests.

Question: Do we publish the cartoons or not?

WHO: The principals. The decision-maker, in this case, most likely would be at least at the managing editor level at a newspaper; perhaps the news director at a television station.

The stakeholders include the local Islamic community, Muslims around the world, people at sites that might be targeted by riots, your newspaper or TV station and its reputation for truth-telling and fairness, and readers and viewers — who have an interest in seeing what is driving such outrage. You may be able to think of others whose interest in the outcome of your decision should be considered.

WHAT: There are several principles at issue here. Is it freedom of expression? Or is it unnecessary provocation? Is there an acceptable middle ground between showing the blunt truth and minimizing the harm of insult?
Some critics said Western media trivialized the cause and exaggerated the reaction. Only a few thousand of the billion or so Muslims worldwide rioted. And this was only the latest manifestation of a long history of bullying, humiliation and marginalization of Muslims by Europe and the United States.

Or did the manipulation come from the Islamist side? Things were comparatively calm until a few leaders decided to use the cartoons to provoke cultural differences between Islam and non-believers. Some say it’s blasphemy to depict any image of Muhammad, although Islamic scholars disagree on whether that’s the right interpretation.

It could be argued that deciding not to publish the cartoons is not cowardly self-censorship but considered good judgment. After all, they were readily available on the Internet. A responsible journalist’s intent should be to inform, not to offend.

There are several options for you, the media outlet. You could publish all 12 cartoons on the front page, or show them in connection with riot scenes on your newscast. That’s rather extreme. At the other extreme, you could simply describe one or two of them. Many newspapers and broadcasters made reference to one picture of Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban. Or you could provide a link to a website where they could be viewed.

HOW: Whatever you decide, it’s important to have a serious discussion and a good reason for your decision. It shouldn’t be simply reacting to a dare with a taunt. And you should consider explaining your rationale to your readers and viewers.

(An anecdote: One group of mass communication ethics students, when presented with this scenario, was ready to decide not to reprint the offending images, just describe them. Then one student located the caricatures on the Internet and called them up on her computer. The class, after looking at the images, changed its mind 180 degrees. The cartoons, they explained, weren’t as offensive as they had imagined they were. Lame, perhaps, and not very funny, but hardly anything to get exercised about.)

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