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University of Wisconsin–Madison

International perspectives on offensive journalism


What offends you? The dead body of an Iraqi child? The irreverent use of a religious symbol? The boiling down of modern geopolitics into a simple formula of ‘us’ versus ‘them’? Or how about the word ‘damn’?

You may not have a hard and fast answer. Indeed, defining offensive is often a case of knowing it when you see it. Which is what makes it such a guessing game for editors considering whether what they publish might elicit their readers’ ire. 

The question of what’s too offensive for publication has always been a matter of contention in newsrooms. But a number of recent high-profile cases have brought that debate to living rooms across Canada.

The human rights complaints filed by a group of Osgoode Hall Law School students against Maclean’s and the conservative provocateur Mark Steyn charge that his article The Future Belongs to Islam promotes Islamophobia and is offensive to Muslims. 

The debate over Bill C-10 has also highlighted the limits of what’s deemed objectionable in Canada. Although the government claims the amendment to the Income Tax Act is just the closing to a legal loophole it would allow Conservatives to shut down production of films — and documentaries — deemed offensive.

Then there was the uproar over a rant  by Vancouver radio columnist Bruce Allen, who told immigrants, “If you choose to come to a place like Canada, then shut up and fit in.” Minority groups called for his resignation from CKNW radio, his firing from his role in the 2010 Olympic Games, and, at the very least, an apology. 

So what is it? In Canada, there’s no law against being offensive, despite what opponents of Bill C-10 might say.  But in the court of public opinion – where, after all, journalism dwells – groups are increasingly voicing their outrage at content they find offensive.

The degree to which editors should care whether what they publish is offensive is a well-trodden debate that I’m not going to enter here. The question I think still needs answering is the one I began with: Just what is offensive journalism? 

To try to get a grasp on the term, I called up Shakuntala Rao, a journalism ethics professor at SUNY University in Plattsburgh, New York. 

She took no time in identifying the core problem of the term ‘offensive’: its slippery and subjective nature.

“Offensive journalism to me is like tabloid journalism,” Rao said, using the example of recent media scrutiny of Eliot Spitzer’s sex life. “The ethical issues get much more murkier when you talk about journalism that can offend. Because you can say anything can offend anybody. You can fall into a trap, a sort of relativist trap.

But if that’s the case, you’ll never be able to report on anything.”

But the absence of consensus on what’s offensive doesn’t mean journalists can just eschew any consideration of their audience’s sensibilities. Indeed, Rao said all journalists across the world take into account how audiences might perceive their reporting.

“Wherever there is journalism, there is self-censorship,” she said.

Race and Religion

Rao, who once worked as a journalist in her native India, said self-censorship takes on different forms relative to the culture of a region. 

In India and Pakistan, for example, journalists are extremely concerned with offending religious minorities when reporting on already volatile situations. “In any of the workshops I’ve done, they’ll say that…anything that has to do with religions, religious communalism, religious violence, cannot be printed or published unless we have a peer discussion,” Rao said.

Generally, she said, religious references are kept to an absolute minimum in Indian and Pakistani journalism. “The last thing you want to do is fan the cinders of hatred that are existing,” she explained. For example, the religion of a criminal suspect will usually not be included in a story. This can be tricky since in India religious and caste affiliation are closely tied to names. Sometimes, then, even the name of a suspect will be withheld from media reports.

“American journalists have this incredible leeway, even in questions of religion,” Rao said. However, she added that similar taboos exist in American media around questions of race. “Again it’s that majoritarian, minoritarian issue,” she said. “When do you identify the race of a perpetrator or the race of a criminal?”

Dead bodies

Although US journalists may sometimes seem freer to offend, Rao pointed out that in the case of showing graphic images of death, media in India are far more brazen. 

She pointed to an example of a child who was abused at his school in an Indian village.
“This child goes to school and he’s beaten up by his teachers.  He’s beaten up so severely that he dies,” she said. “So the parents actually bring the body for display to the cable channels.” The graphic images of the dead child became a major part of a news story about the abuse of children by untrained teachers at rural schools.

It’s hard to imagine the same happening in the U.S. or Canada. In 1993, Oregon’s Eugene Register-Guard tested their audience’s tolerance for images of dead children when they published a front-page photograph of two-year-old Shelby McGuire being carried out of her house by police. Her father had taken her hostage and police found her with a grocery bag over her head. After the decision was made to run the photo, Shelby was pronounced dead and the Register-Guard was flooded with hundreds of angry phone calls.

“If we were presented with a similar situation and a similar photograph today, we would absolutely not do it the way that we did in the Shelby McGuire case,” assistant managing editor Jim Godbold reflected later. His reticence was based on community “boundaries”, rather than newsworthiness, since the photograph did much to illustrate a spate of child abuse deaths in the county.

But in India, Rao said, there would be little concern that images of dead children would offend audiences. “In India, people have a very different relationship with death itself,” she explained. “There’s a lot of tolerance for it. [Indians are] just more likely to be seeing more dead bodies, period… they carry them publicly, it’s not hidden like here.”

Offending the powers-that-be

I hung up from our conversation more confused than ever. Offensive journalism could be tabloid trash, it could be dead bodies of children, or it could be racial and religious references. And it all depends on who and where you are.

But there’s a lot more to consider than the sensibilities of Americans, Indians, and Pakistanis. So I sent out emails to a handful of international journalist contacts, asking them what was considered offensive journalism in their countries.

And surprise — things got even more complicated. 

Warsaw Business Journal editor-in-chief Andrew Kureth told me that in Poland,  “offensive” often means insulting to the President, as it’s possible to be prosecuted for “insulting symbols of the state” — including heads of state. Although Polish journalists are careful about what they say about the President, Kureth said the line is always being tested.

“Just this week we are publishing a cartoon in which we depict the President refusing to sign the Treaty of Lisbon because it is ‘perverse blasphemy’, while someone is whispering in his ear, ‘Mr. President, it’s Lisbon not lesbian’ (the President and his party are known for their anti-gay views),” he wrote in an email. “I do, however, fear repercussions. We’ll see what happens. We have steered clear of cartoons which depict the President as, for example, a dog and – god forbid – a potato.”

Images that degrade the Catholic Church are a huge red flag in Poland, even for tabloid journalism.

“In such a Catholic country as Poland, one has to tread lightly around the Church. Of course, we have printed editorials criticizing the Church — but I would steer clear of any image of Jesus on the cross for example, for fear of offending readers,” he wrote. 

A country’s dominant religion sometimes holds a special place in journalistic taboos. The UAE Journalism Code of Ethics, for example, contains this clause: “Islam is a basic and important component of UAE culture, values and traditions, and the respect of divine religions and traditions and values of nations takes centre stage at the mandatory code of ethics of the media and should not be offended or desecrated by any forms.”

Sex and Violence

When I asked China Daily columnist Raymond Zhou what he thought was too offensive to publish, the first thing he mentioned was sexually provocative images. Times are changing in China, however, as was clear in the media frenzy surrounding the recent Hong Kong movie star sex scandal. 

“[Twenty] years ago I would not even mention certain things such as sexual organs or sexual acts, but nowadays I would do it, if necessary, but use words that are acceptable to most people,” Zhou wrote.

Rodolfo Fernandes, the executive editor of Brazil’s O Globo at http://oglobo.globo.com, pointed to sex and violence as contentious issues for journalists.  

“I think that [Brazilian media] are more cautious when reporting news involving the intimacy of people in general than, for example, the British or US press,” Fernandes wrote. “But certainly they are more prudent in coverage on violence than our media.”

Even so, Fernandes said, reporting violence must be weighed against the public interest of a story. A recent tough call he had to make involved a story and photos about drug dealers in a dangerous slum. “The story, itself, was very controversial because of the violent environment and details of cruelty,” he told me. “But we decided to publish [it] as an alert to society and police forces.”

No consensus? No kidding!

The only clear picture I got out of my decidedly unscientific survey of international journalists was that there is no consensus when it comes to what’s too offensive to publish.

For some, the line is drawn at coverage that could marginalize minority groups, or incite percolating tensions. For others, the decision is more about disrespecting a society’s most sacred or powerful institutions.

And often, it just comes down to anticipating the squeamishness of your audience — which is, of course, as varied within as between nations.

The international vagaries around the term offensive are instructive for Canadian journalists mired in the debates I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Although recent controversies in Canada have centred around insult to minorities, rest assured that the other standards of decency identified by international journalists are also reflected in a nation so multicultural as Canada.

What’s more, the meaning of ‘offensive’ is constantly in flux, as is chronicled in historical works such as Semonche’s Censoring Sex, which traces the development of representations of sexuality in American media. ‘Offensive’, then, is a term constantly negotiated between journalists and their readers. It can be a useful rallying cry for those that feel wronged. It can be the beginning of a conversation.

But what ‘offensive’ is not is written in stone. 

As Canadians continue to hash out just where they draw the line of what should be published by our media, we ought to start identifying some better definitions of harmful journalism. ‘Offensive’ has become far too flimsy a term to dictate something so serious as restricting freedom of expression.

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