Why Not Publish These Cartoons?

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hundreds of readers have asked why The Post hasn't reprinted the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that inflamed Muslims around the world, leading to deadly protests and the burning of embassies. Some readers questioned the Post's journalistic courage.

Martin Lawton of Arlington wrote: "Certainly, given the uproar, it seems incumbent to publish them now so readers can take a look for themselves and make their own decisions. The cartoons have become The Story. How can The Post not show these images and keep a straight face?"

Executive Editor Len Downie made the decision, consulting with other top editors. The issue, he said, is one of journalistic judgment, not courage.

Downie said, "This newspaper vigorously exercises its freedom of expression every day. In doing so, we have standards for accuracy, fairness and taste that our readers have come to expect from The Post. We decided that publishing these cartoons would violate our standards. This has not prevented us from reporting about them and the controversy in great detail in many stories over several days."

Most good newspapers don't set out to offend readers. But newspapers shouldn't avoid controversy, and if they don't occasionally offend readers, they're probably not doing their job.

The Post is edited for accuracy, clarity, fairness and taste. That involves hundreds of decisions a day about which stories, pictures and drawings get into the paper and which don't.

The Post's news standards include a prohibition on gratuitous nudity, obscenity and violence. "Defamatory or prejudicial words and phrases that perpetuate racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes are impermissible," the paper's stylebook says. This also applies to photos and drawings.

The Danish cartoons, which were described in several Post stories, angered Muslims in part because Islamic tradition bans the visual depiction of human beings or "graven images," particularly of the prophet Muhammad or any religious figures.

Just because something is forbidden in religious practice doesn't mean that The Post won't report on it, visually or otherwise.

The Post has written thousands of stories about abortion, forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church, and has printed countless recipes using pork, forbidden to Orthodox Jews and Muslims. And the Post publishes stories about drinking alcohol, forbidden by Islam and other faiths.

That also doesn't mean that The Post doesn't occasionally offend readers' sensibilities, religious or otherwise. A recent story on over-the-top bar and bat mitzvahs in New York offended several Jewish readers. But you're not going to see a cartoon lampooning the Virgin Mary or the Jewish high holy days in The Post. So you wouldn't expect to see a cartoon making fun of Muhammad.

The issue is taste and not just religious sensitivity. The Post published some of the first pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq but did not publish those that showed excessive nudity. The Post does not publish photos of dead people unless the photos are deemed to have high news value, such as one of the burned bodies of American contractors hanging from a bridge in Iraq.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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