Mediatwits #143: Free Speech And Self-Censorship After Charlie Hebdo Attacks

    by Jefferson Yen
    January 16, 2015
    The Mediatwits discuss the future of Charlie Hebdo after the Paris attacks.

    Following the violent attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French weekly that published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, media organizations had to decide whether or not to publish sensitive materials related to the attack — especially when the new issue of the magazine came out with yet another cartoon on the cover. The AP, CNN, ABC and NY Times are among some of the media outlets that wouldn’t run the cartoons. But that wasn’t the only ethics debate concerning Charlie Hebdo. After the attacks in Paris, amateur video showing the murder of a police officer appeared online. The video quickly went viral. But in an interview with the AP, the man who shot the video, Jordi Mir, said he regretted uploading it to Facebook. Should organizations think twice about publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad? We’ll try to untangle these issues with Kristen Hare at the Poynter Institute; Jenni Sargent, director of Eyewitness Media Hub; and Dylan Byers, media reporter at Politico. PBS MediaShift’s Mark Glaser will host and Jefferson Yen will be producing.

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    "I don't think news organizations have an obligation to show the [recent Charlie Hebdo cover], but I think they should admit they are making an exception here." -Dylan Byers

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    mark-glaser-ISOJ-headshot-150x150Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is a longtime freelance writer and editor, who has contributed to magazines such as Entertainment Weekly, Wired and Conde Nast Traveler, and websites such as CNET and the Yale Global Forum. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Renee and son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.


    Kristen Hare is a media reporter for the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and she writes Poynter’s morning media newsletter. She previously worked as a reporter at the St. Louis Beacon, covering immigration, race and the census, and the St. Joseph News-Press, where she was an enterprise features reporter. Kristen also spent two years in Guyana, South America, with the Peace Corps.  You can find her on Twitter @KristenHare

    Dylan Byers is a media reporter at POLITICO and the author of the On Media blog. He was previously a media and tech reporter at Adweek, and has served as a research assistant to Philip Gourevitch, George Packer, and Jane Kramer. He graduated from Bard College in 2008. Follow him @DylanByers

    Jenni Sargent is a director of Eyewitness Media Hub. She specialises in creating bespoke online training for media organisations and NGOs and is working to develop a library of free digital resources to address the logistical, ethical and legal issues surrounding eyewitness media. Find her @JenniSarge


    The decision by some media organizations to censor depictions of the Prophet has not sat well with some. Actress Mia Farrow slammed TV stations for not showing images of the new Charlie Hebdo cover. But Stephen Pollard, the editor of the UK’s Jewish Chronicle, defended his position in a tweet: “Every principle I hold tells me to print them. But what right do I have to risk the lives of my staff to make a point?” Not everyone agreed with this line of thinking.  Viewpoints editor Mike Drago at the Dallas Morning News explained that their decision to run the covers was a small gesture “…compared with the courage of those who died…” There was a third approach, commentators like Jordan Weissmann at Slate, and Maria Bustillos at Gawker condemned the attack and characterized the cartoons as racist or xenophobic but were ultimately in favor of free speech.

    The attack on Charlie Hebdo and the following discussion on freedom of expression is the most recent example of tensions over the depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. In 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten outraged many when it published a series of illustrations depicting Mohammed. In 2007, Swedish artist Lars Vilks was the center of another controversy after his depiction of Mohammed as a dog was published in the Nerikes Allehanda newspaper. In 2011, Charlie Hebdo was firebombed after the publication named the Prophet the “editor-in-chief” of an issue which depicted two men kissing on the cover.

    In what contexts is posting the cartoons acceptable online and in print and broadcast? How should journalists approach the publication of sensitive materials? Where is the balance for free speech and offensive or hate speech?

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    Jefferson Yen is the producer for the Mediatwits Podcast. His work has been on KPCC Southern California Public Radio and KRTS Marfa Public Radio. You can follow him @jeffersontyen.

    Tagged: charlie hebdo cnn ethics france morals new york times self-censorship terrorism

    2 responses to “Mediatwits #143: Free Speech And Self-Censorship After Charlie Hebdo Attacks”

    1. Hans Stork says:

      This is really a case of whether one group (certain facets of Islam) can determine what is appropriate press coverage for all. PBS and other news organizations have decided that this minority that is misinterpreting the Koran (per Dylan Byers) can hold sway over information dissemination. PBS has decided that yes, it is appropriate to cowtow to this minority. Is it fear of reprisal or is PBS really concerned about the hurt feelings of these aggressive religious zealots? Either way, PBS drastically compromised their media integrity.

      • markglaser says:

        Hans, it can be a difficult call on whether to show images or not, because each news org has to set its own standards. But this is definitely a case where I think traditional media will need to rethink the way they make these decisions. We did decide to show the cartoon on our podcast.

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