Last week, freedom of speech became one of the primary talking points during the U.N. General Assembly in a wake of a series of violent protests following the publication of an anti-Islam video on YouTube. This video led to the death of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, as well as a cartoon in a French satirical magazine containing lewd photos of the Prophet Mohammed.
While President Barack Obama decried the video as “crude and disgusting,” he used his address as an opportunity to defend the First Amendment, claiming that, “in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities.”
The leaders of Muslim countries, meanwhile, argued that freedom of expression is no excuse for blatantly hateful speech.
Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the president of Yemen, told the General Assembly that, “there should be limits for the freedom of expression, especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.”
Malaysian foreign minister Anifah Aman argued that it’s “time to dwell deeper into the heart of the problem and the real debate — the relationship between freedom of expression and social responsibilities, duties and obligations.”
While I agree wholeheartedly with Obama’s assertion that free speech is fundamental to a free society, as members of the media, I think Hadi and Aman’s arguments about social responsibility should be taken into account when we cover potentially inflammatory subjects, like “The Innocence of Muslims.”
In a column in the Columbia Journalism Review, Lawrence Pintak, the dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, argued that “the pen is mightier than the sword, but it is also far more lethal when manipulated irresponsibly.”
To me, this means that while as a society we should not have the right to prevent people like Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (the filmmaker behind “The Innocence of Muslims”) from saying whatever they want, but as members of the media, we have an entirely different set of responsibilities in terms of how we follow up on it.
One of the key tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is to minimize harm. While nobody questions the notion that we shouldn’t report the names of sexual assault victims or publish the photos of fallen soldiers, the notion of not publishing an image or column simply because some might take offense is — rightfully — far more controversial.
The media’s job is to report the truth. And reporting the truth, and publishing a variety of dissenting voices about a variety of topics, will inevitably offend somebody. A free press would be absolutely pointless if it didn’t cause a little bit of offense, but by the same token, a press entirely focused on being offensive would also lose some of its usefulness.
“I’m not going into the streets with stones and Kalashnikovs,” the editor of Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine that published the images of Mohammed, told the Associated Press.
But by the same token, I’d argue that his comic clearly did not contribute to the public discourse, and he knew it wouldn’t. He was publishing it in spite of the violent protests around the world.
“… journalism is not supposed to be a firebomb,” Pintak wrote. “The goal is to inform, not inflame; to understand, not distort. Isn’t that what separates us from propaganda?”
Most media outlets have chosen to cover the protests without showing “The Innocence of Muslims” or reprinting the Charlie Hebdo cartoon.
Most outlets (except for Newsweek, which showed a very stereotypical photo of Muslim protesters with the headline “Muslim Rage: How I survived it, how we can end it”) have been sensitive in terms of how they portray the protests, and have added to the discussion after the events of the past couple of weeks.
Others — like Charlie Hebdo — have not been remotely intelligent about it, and while they have every right in the world to say what they did, did not contribute anything meaningful to the public discussion.
The pen is definitely mightier than the sword, and much like how you wouldn’t brandish your sword like an idiot, the pen also needs a little bit of restraint.
Editor in Chief Allison Sylte is a senior journalism major. Her column appears Mondays in the Collegian. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AllisonSylte.