Communique Editorial Issue 2

27 Feb

IF you look at this newspaper’s masthead—that gray box listing all our writers, photographer, etc.—you’ll see a line at the bottom where the editors claim responsibility for the content of Communiqué. Around the world, the issue of editorial responsibility has been the subject of intense debate over the past several weeks, as riots erupted in Muslim communities from Syria to Indonesia in response to the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The death toll of these riots—at least 34 as we go to press—underlines that the debate is more than theoretical.

Every editor in history has faced decisions about what information to include and how to present it. Fortunately, our decisions at Communiqué are generally not matters of life and death. However, we still face difficult decisions in every section of the paper: Is a sex toy demonstration for undergrads worth covering in SIPA News? How much factual information do Policy Pages writers need to back up their opinions? Who should get column space on the Back Page?

There are no answers to these questions in the AP Style Guide or Webster’s. So we either have editorial policies or make it up as we go along. Even at a small student paper, it’s not easy. The media are supposed to be the fourth estate; they are expected to give a voice to those who have none, be the standard-bearers for truth and provide a forum for debate—all challenging tasks. Tasks that get more complicated when you throw in issues like editorial authority. How much is too much? How much is not enough?

The mainstream debate surrounding the cartoon controversy has centered on freedom of the press and the sanctity of religious symbols. What it should focus on, instead, is the issue of editorial responsibility. The Muhammad caricatures were designed to provoke. According to Flemming Rose, Jylland-Posten‘s culture editor, “In a secular society, Muslims have to live with the fact of being ridiculed, scoffed at and made to look ridiculous.”

Other editors across Europe apparently felt Muslims should tolerate more than that. Even as the initial peaceful protests over the cartoons were turning to violent riots, editors at publications in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and elsewhere went to press with the images.

Arguments that newspapers should take a stand on “free speech” confuse the issue of growing intolerance with freedom of the press. We believe in press freedom—it’s part of the reason we are journalists—but we also believe that editors (and writers and cartoonists) are responsible for what they print.

We agree with Voltaire, who said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

When it is other people’s deaths that are at stake, however, an editor should intervene.

This editorial was printed in the second edition(PDF) of the student newspaper of the School of International and Public Affairs, Communiqué, where I was editor-in-chief, in the spring of 2006.

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