Sunday, February 05, 2006

Weekend update - Cultural Sensitivity and YOU!

Oh goody, a hot-button topic in the scintillating world of Journalism.

You may have noticed in the news that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons Sept. 30, that even I, as a well-meaning atheist, found offensive. The cartoons, depicting the prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb-turban, and charred muslims at the gates of heaven being told "Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins!" rightly drew the wrath of the muslim world.

Think of it this way: It's like depicting St. Paul fondling a little boy in a Catholic confessional, or Moses flapping about in a big pile of money, or Jesus drunk and hitting on a mule. It's like the Turkish film depicting wild-eyed American soldiers shooting up an Iraqi wedding and hauling the survivors to Abu Ghraib.

It's using an icon of an entire people to joke about the actions of an extreme minority. In short, it's just not kosher.

I don't like using the word "shitstorm" often... no, that's a lie. I put it on my stationery.

The point is, the muslim world was up in arms four months after the fact, sparking violent protests worldwide calling for the beheading of "those who insult Islam."

This is, of course, following a complaint to the Danish government, Syria recalling its ambassador, other scandanavian newspapers REPRINTING the cartoons, Spanish, French, German, and Italian papers reprinting the cartoons later in the month, and a "too little, too late" apology from Jyllands-Posten.

Locally, there has been very little outcry. Mainly because there isn't much of a Muslim population here in Whitecourt, and our cartoons are pretty tame. So, sorry - nobody's thrown a molotov cocktail through the window of my office yet.

Now that we have a little perspective on the situation, I'm going to tell you what I think.

This is a situation that shouldn't have happened.

The editor of the Danish paper had to be asleep at the wheel to allow something like that to squeak through. And one has to wonder at the good sense of the cartoonist who drew it - was s/he hunched over a drafting table at 3 a.m., frantic about the looming deadline? Or do Europeans have a slightly different idea of cultural sensitivity?

Who knows? The point is, this action and backlash throws the ideas of Free Press and Cultural Sensitivity back into the ring for a knock-down, drag-out cage match.

On the one hand, newspapers should be, and are, allowed to print what they want. It's part of a free, transparent world. A free press is a great thing, but it's like holding the remote detonator to a nuclear bomb.

On the other, it's the responsibility of those in charge of this free press to think carefully about what they allow to grace their pages.

To think that this furor could have been raised by a cartoon - something I never read in the paper anyway - is ridiculous. It's not that these riots have been caused by a reaction to well-presented and uncomfortable revelations in a news story. It's that they are in reaction to a DOODLE. Something with a clear meaning and very little nuance - how could people NOT be offended by a top religious icon depicted as a terrorist? Or as a short-fused bomb ready to explode?

The fact of the matter is that as editors and journalists, we must always think about the implications of what we write. Sure, we're constantly against deadlines, hurrying to crank out those last few column-inches of copy so we can go home, but we always have to think critically: Is it really worth the backlash for me to publish this?

Let's face it - as journalists, we hold a lot of power. It's time we use it responsibly.


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