Newest Issue of Charlie Hebdo Prompts Media Ethics Debate

Public Editor Margaret Sullivan argued today that NYT should have published an image of the cover.

There’s almost no way you missed today’s biggest news: French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published its first new issue since terrorists killed more than a dozen people in and near its Paris offices one week ago.

NYT charlie hebdo

This is a link to the cover of that issue, which repeats the “offense” that inspired the attack by publishing a visual representation of the prophet Muhammad. The above image is a screenshot of last night’s New York Times story, which did not include an image of the same cover.

Since the image leaked days ago and BuzzFeed (among other sites) has already run a tally of which publications published it and which didn’t earlier this week, we’re less concerned with the image itself than the ethics debate that it spawned.

While this story concerns journalism more than traditional public relations, nearly every outlet around the world saw it as a reputation challenge: should we publish or not? Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet earned a great deal of scrutiny last week after a journalism professor referred to the paper’s decision not to run the image that supposedly inspired the attacks “absolute cowardice”; Baquet responded by calling him an “asshole.”

The newest twist in the tale came this morning, when the paper’s public editor Margaret Sullivan disagreed with Baquet in her “Public Editor’s Journal” column.

From that piece:

“A vast majority of readers were critical of The Times’s decision, feeling strongly that both because of news value and in order to reinforce free speech and show solidarity with a publication under attack, The Times should have published them…

I asked Mr. Baquet on Tuesday if he had considered changing course — as some media organizations did, including The Wall Street Journal and the news pages of the The Washington Post — in order to publish the image of the new edition’s cover. He told me that he had thought about it but decided against it, in keeping with his original thinking.

The cartoon itself, while it may disturb the sensibilities of a small percentage of Times readers, is neither shocking nor gratuitously offensive. And it has, undoubtedly, significant news value…Times readers should not have had to go elsewhere to find it.”

What do we think? Have the outlets that decided not to run the cover damaged their own reputations?