Not long after 12 cartoonists and editors were murdered at the Paris office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine last Wednesday, news outlets around the world faced a difficult dilemma: produce images of satirical cartoons of Mohammed from the weekly publication and face the possibility of being attacked by other terrorists; or play it safe by using other pictures instead.
One organization that wrestled with the problem was National Public Radio, which debated whether or not to post such illustrations on its website, according to Mark Memmott, the company's standards and practices editor.
Memmott stated that the attack was “thought to have been the work of killers who believe cartoons can be so offensive that they justified the murder of 12 people.”
“News organizations and people around the world obviously believe the opposite -- that no one deserves to die just because he's rude, crude or otherwise obnoxious,” he added. “Free speech includes the right to be offensive.”
The key points behind the decision not to post the magazine’s most controversial, and potentially most offensive, cartoons included:
Photos showing just a few of the magazine’s covers could lead viewers to mistakenly conclude that Charlie Hebdo is only a bit edgier than other satirical publications.
But a comprehensive display of Charlie Hebdo‘s work would require posting images that go well beyond most news organizations’ standards regarding offensive material.
In addition, Memmott stated that no news organization “could seriously say that it doesn’t think about the safety of its journalists, when these cartoons might have been the cause for the firebombing of Charlie Hebdo‘s offices a few years back and the murder of its staff this week.”
“But we’re journalists,” he added. “We’re willing to take risks. We know that sometimes we’ll have to.”
To prove his point, Memmott noted that in 2011, the magazine's offices "were firebombed after it published an issue that invited the prophet Mohammed to be guest editor; the magazine was renamed 'Charia Hebdo' for that issue, and its cover included an image of the prophet with the line: 'A thousand lashes if you don't die laughing.'”
“At this time,” he continued, “NPR is not posting images of Charlie Hebdo's most controversial cartoons -- just as it did not post such images during earlier controversies involving the magazine and a Danish cartoonist's caricatures of the prophet.”
In addition, “the New York Times has taken the same position,” and the “Washington Post's editorial board has put one of Charlie Hebdo's prophet Mohammed covers on the print version of its op-ed pages, but not online,” Memmott stated.
Meanwhile, in an article on the Buzzfeed website, reporters Rosie Gray and Ellie Hall looked at a different solution to the controversy: the "censoring" of potentially offensive images.
In the United Kingdom, they stated, The Telegraph blurred out one of the depictions of Mohammed, which had appeared on the magazine's cover. The newspaper also used a tightly cropped image of Stéphane Charbonnier, the director of Charlie Hebdo who was killed when the masked gunmen attacked the publication's offices.
The New York Daily News also used blurred images of the Mohammed cartoons, including a pixelated photo of the 2011 “Charia Hebdo” issue that depicted Mohammed on the cover.
A spokesman for the BBC TV network told Gray and Hall that the Mohammed policy is “under review.”
But the editors at the New York Times explained their decision not to show the images:
Under Times standards, we do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities.
After careful consideration, Times editors decided that describing the cartoons in question would give readers sufficient information to understand today’s story.
“Other outlets made more subtle choices to censor the images, with some using cropped photos that did not include the actual image of Mohammed,” Gray and Hall noted.
In addition, all the major networks and cable channels are declining to show the cartoons. Spokesmen for ABC News and CBS News said they considered the illustrations “insensitive” or “offensive.”
Asked whether NBC News would show images of the Mohammed cartoons in the course of its reporting on the story, a spokesperson said: “Our NBC News Group Standards team has sent guidance to NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC not to show headlines or cartoons that could be viewed as insensitive or offensive.”