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Editor in Chief

To Publish or not to Publish

Categories: Canada, Journalism, World


Charlie Hebdo's publishing director Stéphane Charbonnier is among the dead.

News editors around the world grappled with the same dilemma yesterday: to show or not to show the controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons linked to the mass murder in Paris.

At CBC News, we opted on the side of discretion: to show some of these incendiary cartoons, but hold back from showing the ones most likely to offend Muslims because they depicted the Prophet Muhammad.

We had a great deal of company in making that decision, as organizations such as CNN and the BBC adopted a similar approach.

Others, such as The National Post, made a different choice, and made a point of publishing the cartoons.

If you spent any time on social media yesterday, you'd think that both choices represented some sort of declaration of war: if you published, you were obviously against Islam; if you didn't, you were obviously against freedom of speech - or at the very least, a censoring coward.

Sorry to let the rabble-rousers on both sides down, but the truth is that neither is the case.

You can be a fierce devotee of freedom of expression who feels outrage against extremists and solidarity with French journalists, yet still decide that you can cover the story clearly and thoroughly without publishing material that could offend Muslims or even incite hatred toward them.

You can also be committed to respect for all religions and believe in social justice, yet still decide that this attack on democratic values and freedoms was so outrageous that taking a stand by publishing the cartoons is the right thing to do.

Recognizing that both choices are okay does not make one a nihilist; it makes one a realist.

And the reality is that journalists often have to choose between competing "good" principles when they decide what to cover, and how to cover it. Organizations make these decisions through the prism of their own journalism policies and values.

We've spoken before about our decision not to show beheadings on ISIS videos. We did not want to play their propaganda game and cultivate fear; we also did not want to exploit the suffering of the victims and their families. Yet, in making that choice, we were suppressing part of the story - the opposite of our usual raison d'ĂȘtre.

Now that was an extreme case, and I do not mean to equate those videos with the cartoons. There are a range of more mundane dilemmas we face every day. It might be about whether to show a crime scene, or the suffering of an animal, or determining whether we have "enough" evidence to go with an investigative story.

Even yesterday's story from Charlie Hebdo offered a different dilemma - whether to air gruesome video of a police officer being executed. We chose not to show that. I don't think that decision makes us guilty of censorship any more than opting not to publish the cartoons. In both cases we do not think these decisions muddied the journalism.

And it is the journalism - the story - that matters most. If we had felt that showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons was imperative to telling yesterday's story properly, we would have included them. Each time, we have to weigh the competing "goods".

That means approaching these decisions with both critical thinking and humility. Yesterday's choices were based on values embedded in our Journalistic Standards and Practices. They were also subject to as much vigorous debate inside our newsroom as they were outside.

And I hope we show humility by not attacking the choices of others, and also by reflecting the debate on our own airwaves. Our Director of Journalistic Standards and Practices David Studer explained our position on CBC News Network this morning, yet last night Neil Macdonald did an analysis piece on The National that in many ways made an argument against the CBC position.

All that is to say that the word "dilemma" exists for a reason. There is often no perfect alternative. In those instances, we at CBC News will continue to use our experience and values to make the best judgements we can. And we are reminded by the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo how important it is for disagreement and debate to take place in a civil manner rather than a bloodthirsty one.

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