Journalism and satire: A discussion of the responsibilities and risks

A Q & A with journalism expert Roy Peter Clark

WASHINGTON D.C. - The deadly attack at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was a sobering reminder that to some religious extremists -- the same ones often lambasted on the covers of satirical magazines -- blasphemous speech is not only a sin, it’s a punishable offense. The demonstrations following the attack were a reminder that defending freedom of speech requires going beyond defending conventional, fact-based journalism.

We sat down with Roy Peter Clark, writing instructor and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism research center, to talk about the complicated relationship between satire and conventional journalism – a relationship that becomes even more complicated in some cultures outside the U.S. and Western Europe. 

Q: What are the basic differences between satire and conventional journalism?

A: I think in general the differences are about boundaries and I think in most societies over the course of history, in societies like the United States and France, satire prides itself on breaking boundaries or having few boundaries. In journalism there are self-imposed boundaries governed by law and ethics and the standards and practices and traditions of a particular news organization.

I think that it’s important to recognize that while those differences between satire and journalism are pretty substantial, when you get to the deep-seeded cultural values of freedom of expression the two forms kind of come together. (After the Hebdo attack) you saw many acts of solidarity – people coming forward in defense of (free speech) even if they do not support a particular message of a particular cartoon.

Q: Talk about that some more – about defending freedom of speech even if you don’t like the message.

A: I think that’s essential in a free society. If I’m not mistaken, you’ve reminded me of Voltaire, and I’ll have to paraphrase him.  He said that “I may not agree with the things you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” There’s a set of deep and enduring values about the value of free expression, which requires a society or a culture to accept and tolerate modes of expression which they find repugnant.

In the U.S., our tolerance for certain kinds of speech is much broader than it is in other societies. I think there has to be a certain level of understanding of the differences between cultures and religions. It doesn’t surprise me that Muslims would be offended by certain representations of the prophet. The problems with extreme forms of politics and radical fundamentalism are that they equate blasphemy with a capital offense. That’s the predicament we find ourselves in.

Q: Even though satire and journalism rely on free speech to do what they do, should journalists and satirists be treated differently?

A: Journalism exists on a spectrum. From very mild and conventional and straightforward to quite edgy and powerful and perhaps irresponsible. (What’s) interesting is that satire exists on that spectrum as well. The French magazine Charlie Hebdo is named (after) the Charlie from Charlie Brown, from Peanuts. If you think about it, the comic strips in most newspapers are a fairly polite form of satire. As compared to some of the more graphic, pornographic, blasphemous and intentionally provocative images in the French magazine. So I think it’s good not to lump these together… It’s not just the genres of these crafts but what their purpose is as well.

Q: What are your thoughts on prior restraint and self restraint?

A: In the United States we’ve chosen to have a government that continually decides to give us the maximum amount of freedom of expression. So there’s a difference between censorship and prior restraint. There’s professional restraint that’s exercised every single day with journalists. News organizations in the United States and throughout the world are deciding whether or not to show [the most recent Charlie Hebdo] image as part of their news coverage.

I think that everyone would agree that it’s newsworthy, but they are balancing that news coverage against a desire to not be offensive. Certainly in the case of The New York Times, which has reporters and news resources all over the world, (they) are making sure that those people are protected from any additional sort of radical violence against Western sources.

Q: Can satirists go too far?

 A: You have to speak about these things in two contexts and they may seem contradictory but I think they are complementary. Let’s take the movie about North Korea, The Interview. I haven’t seen it yet, I’m planning to. I just don’t think it’s a good idea to write a story about the assassination of an actual leader of an actual country, no matter how repugnant that country is. And for what purpose? It’s certainly not to reform North Korea or overturn it.

It’s a very, very different equation than in 1940 when Charlie Chaplin created the Great Dictator. One of the greatest satirical movies of all time, a devastating deflation of Hitler and the Nazi culture... But I’ve read that in his biography Chaplin says that if he had known [about the concentration camps] when he was making fun of the Nazis… he probably wouldn’t have made the movie. So I think what he’s saying in reflection is that no matter how significant the target of your satire is, that you have an additional responsibility to think about the consequences of your actions.

[Related: News overrepresents Muslims as perpetrators of terrorism]

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