Wednesday, February 15, 2006

When the news media withholds the heart of a story

Newspapers and TV stations across the United States and Europe have refused to publish/broadcast the cartoons which are at the heart of the current riots in the Muslim world, and there has been a lot of discussion on the correctness of these decisions. Most supporters of their decision cite the fact that these cartoons offend Muslims as a good enough reason. Well, that was a good enough reason last October when the story was merely that a Dutch newspaper published them as a test of free speech. Now that parts of the world have exploded in violence, it is no longer a good enough reason. The cartoons are the story now, and it is impossible for consumers of the news to come to any kind of conclusion when the media refuses to show the pictures that sparked the violence.

Let me work in a very rough analogy here. Let's say that tomorrow a picture surfaced that showed Jack Abramhof and President Bush shaking hands and smiling as Abramhof handed the president a check. That picture would be the heart of the story, and the news media would have no choice but show it in order to fully tell the story. It is the same here. The public cannot get the full picture of the cartoon riots without seeing the pictures. To me, the news media forfeits its right to talk about their high journalistic ideals if they refuse to fully report an important story to its customers. You can avoid publicizing images when they are incidental or merely supportive of a story. For example, pictures of coffins are incidental to a news story on military casualities but not the story. You can present the story without the photos but not lose any context. That is not the case with the Danish cartoons. There is no context for the public if they can't see the cartoons.

Personally, I think the media is just doing more to drive people to alternative news sources on the internet. I have very little sympathy for them when they complain about low circulation, viewership, or ad sales because they are doing it to themselves. Any moderately inquisitive person who hears this story on the news is going to want to know exactly what the hubub is about by seeing the cartoons for themselves. If the news media refuses to give them that context, they are naturally going to turn to sources that do.

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