In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, I and other journalists in Western democracies deplored the violence and defended freedom of expression against terrorism.
A common defense of the satirical magazine’s barbed cartoons was “the right to offend.” Some commentators made the principle absolute, and then concluded the following: If news media did not republish offending material, their editors were moral cowards.
Legally, this response has its heart in the right place. But, ethically, it comes up short in three places:
The ‘right to offend’
First, the issue is inadequately framed as mainly a legal question of the right to offend, and the main complaint is that the cartoons offend a religious group.
For example, reports of a “Nous Sommes Tous Charlie” symposium at the Missouri School of Journalism focused on the legal aspect of free speech, and what constitutes hate speech.
Such discussions are important, but the Hebdo case is much more than that. It is a question of ethics, journalistic duties, tensions within plural societies and the role of media.
Defending without absolutes
Second, the right to publish is not absolute. Such a view trivializes legitimate questions about using media to offend deeply held beliefs and to create hostile environments. We can defend offensive speech without absolutes or trivialization.
We need to reframe the debate to avoid absolutes and to discuss the social duties of journalists — not just their rights. Overall, the Hebdo debate failed to discuss sufficiently the role of news media in amplifying or reducing the tensions between immigrants, Muslims and other groups in France and the rest of Europe.
These tensions, enhanced by global media, form the background for the issue of offensive journalism today. We should ask: What sorts of journalism are needed in such an era? Is the satire of Charlie Hebdo helpful or harmful?
Name calling gets us nowhere
Third, there is (or was) no duty to republish all or some of the cartoons. There was a range of ethically permissible options. Calling people cowards is just name calling.
My ethical position is summed up by two slogans:
- Journalism is restrained not by causing offense, but by causing harm to interests.
- A right to offend is balanced by a duty to mend.
Harm to interests
Stout defenders of the right to offend get a couple of things right. First, there is (or should be) a legal right to publish — even if it offends — as long as the material respects reasonable restrictions on free speech, such as libel or inciting violence against a group. The stout defenders also are right to reject “being offended” as a fundamental, stand-alone reason to restrict journalism in a democracy.
Because “being offended” is too restrictive, too trivial or too “wide” a concept. It is too restrictive because it would make robust debate all but impossible. It is too trivial because people can be offended by relatively unimportant things. Does the smell of a person on a bus offend you? Does an overweight person disgust you? It is too wide because it applies to many areas that involve the rights of others, such as the public display of affection (e.g., kissing) among gays.
People can feel offended about almost anything.
However, it could be objected that we are only considering the easy cases. What about
actions and publications that deeply (not trivially) offend? I hold a neo-Nazis march through a Jewish community. Or, perhaps I claim the following: Pornography reinforces harmful social attitudes towards women, publishing hate speech against gays in a red-neck town creates fear and supports discrimination, university students participating in a Facebook page that ridicules black students as inferior creates a harmful environment on campus.
Doesn’t “being offended” mean something in such cases?
The answer is that the main reason to object is not that they offend — which they do — but that they cause, or are likely to cause, serious harm to individuals or groups. And not just any old harm. Such actions create social environments that are hostile and harmful to individuals and groups. What such environments do, through speech and communication, is thwart, endanger or set back the interests of people.
Words can hurt since humans form beliefs and attitudes through language and communication.
Consider this example: I am director of a journalism school. In the corridors, I express to students my strong and intolerant views about women and black students. Have I the right to offend, absolutely, in this situation? Of course, not. But why not?
Because, apart from being offended, female and black students have a good reason to worry that my attitudes might affect their progress in the school, given my power as director. Further, I am creating a negative environment where certain members of the school do not feel safe and wonder whether they will be able to pursue school opportunities on an equal footing with other students.
Therefore, my offensive communications is wrong and can be restrained, mainly because they cause harm to interests.
For controversial media and speech, looking at possible harms to interests in social contexts is superior to a citizen complaining that they have been offended or a journalist claiming an absolute right to offend. This absolute approach easily becomes a tool of discrimination, by ignoring how speech must be evaluated in terms of social role, institutional setting, and power. If we appeal to an absolute freedom to publish we cannot even discuss such issues. Debate is brought to a halt.
My suggestion, applied to media, is that we evaluate any complaint about a report (or form of journalism) being offensive not in terms of hurt feelings but actual or potential harms to people’s interests, communication environments and the aim of a plural and just society. Of course, we need to evaluate each case on its merits and not presume in advance that a complaint means an actual, serious harm has been done. But what is important is to switch our criteria of evaluation from causing offense to causing harm.
Redefining the issue allows us to more coherently evaluate Charlie Hebdo, hate speech, and insulting material in terms of potential or actual harm to interests.
Duty to mend
My second slogan, the duty to mend, is an extension of the first slogan.
If we restrain journalism by harms to interests, including the impact on social climates, then we imply that journalists have “positive” duties to do socially helpful reporting.
When we talk about environments and the interactions of groups, we expand our ethical vision to the social role of journalism. Journalism ethics becomes more than just a list of negative rules about what not to do in specific situations, such as do not distort the facts. It becomes a form of social action with a set of aims to promote and values to honor.
In my view, journalism’s social duties include promoting the values and goals of democratic society, as defined by the era in question.
Today, the positive duties revolve around constructing a society where people of different conceptions of life can feel safe and equally able to pursue their goods in supportive environments. Journalists should act as bridges of understanding and respectful communication among conflicting groups and traditions. This journalism of dialogue across traditions and borders is crucial for an ethics of global media.
In my view, this role of cultural “translation” is more important than satirical cartoons that deliberately ridicule religions and pay little attention to the need to mend differences.
The key questions in Hebdo-like cases, now and in the future, will be ethical questions of whether certain types of journalism contribute to healthy, peaceful, social environments. What forms of journalism create unhealthy climates of resentment, inequality, and alienation?
These are the issues that need attention.
I propose my “duty to mend” as a principle to balance the enthusiastic support that already exists among journalists for a free press and its right to offend.
It might help to frame the ethical discussion in a wider and more thoughtful manner.
Stephen J. A. Ward is an internationally recognized media ethicist, author and educator. He is Distinguished Lecturer of Ethics at the University of British Columbia, Courtesy Professor at the University of Oregon, and founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin.