The Context of Offensiveness

Back in college, a good friend of mine was editor of the school newspaper (the Oregon Daily Emerald).  On his return from a journalism conference in Florida, we had a lengthy discussion about the appropriateness of including certain images in news stories. Much of the discussion turned on an image my friend called “Spike Boy” – a close-up photo of a teenage boy who had fallen from a roof and impaled himself on the spike of a wrought-iron fence (and lived to tell about it). While hotly debated, we all generally agreed that the newsworthiness of the image – starkly illustrating the severity of the injury, and the miraculous fact that it wasn’t fatal – outweighed the shock it would cause in some readers.

In the 25+ years since, the media has widely embraced this sort of view; I’m writing this from an airport where CNN is breathlessly dissecting security camera images from inside the Paris grocery store where a group of religious fanatics killed four hostages.

Yet CNN won’t show the Charlie Hebdo magazine covers. Not in the wake of the shootings that left 12 dead at the magazine’s Paris office, and not to display the incredible resilience the magazine showed in publishing a brilliant response to the violent attempt to silence it.  Nor will the New York Times, NBC, and a host of other media outlets.

As Ken White of Popehat notes, the NYT’s explanation for this omission, of wanting to avoid offending the sensibilities of some of its readers, raises many questions. Scott Greenfield leans in hard on the rationalizations chosen by the media to avoid showing these images. And thinking back to my long-ago discussion of “Spike Boy,” the primacy given to wanting to avoid offense – and in this case, religious offense, of a type with the offense that drove the Charlie Hebdo killers – seems far more an act of cowardice than of principle.

Yes, “offensiveness” needs to part of the equation when the media decides whether to publish an image. But “newsworthiness” is on the other side of the balance from that equation. It’s hard to imagine something more newsworthy than allowing readers to see the actual images that drove a group of people to kill those who created them. And is NBC really doing its readers a service by writing this:

“All is forgiven,” says the front-page headline over a cartoon depicting a tearful Muhammad holding a “Je Suis Charlie” banner.

Rather than showing this?

Charlie Hebdo Cover


I’m not suggesting that the news media has an obligation to look for opportunities to offend the sensibilities, religious or otherwise, of its readers. But the media IS supposed to inform – and even challenge, at least a little – its readers. It needs to risk offense in service of informing.

For all the potential power and eloquence in words, they are often inadequate to the task – particularly when images, and the offense they invoke, is at the heart of the story.

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