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Don't censor: Free speech trumps concerns about controversial UT Trayvon Martin cartoon

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Stephanie Eisner's cartoon published in The Daily Texan Courtesy of Daily Texan
Austin Photo Set: News_Kevin_daily texan_cartoon_march 2012_stephanie eisner
Stephanie Eisner Courtesy of utexas.edu
Austin Photo Set: News_Kevin_daily texan_cartoon_march 2012_stephanie eisner cartoon
Austin Photo Set: News_Kevin_daily texan_cartoon_march 2012_stephanie eisner
Austin Photo Set: News_Kevin_daily texan_cartoon_march 2012_trayvon martin
Austin Photo: Author_kevin_benz

Editor's note: CultureMap Austin Editor in Chief Kevin Benz also serves as the national board chair for the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA) the largest journalism association dedicated to electronic journalism. The following article is based upon his experience as a veteran journalist and also appears on the RTDNA website.

The honorable journalism tradition of presenting thoughtful opinion and commentary, the “editorial,” is under fire and with it the First Amendment promise of free speech.

On Tuesday controversy erupted as The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater, and where I still live) published an editorial cartoon lambasting media coverage of Trayvon Martin's death.

 But life is not so simple and homicide almost never is, so stories as complicated as this one with multiple storylines, deep emotion and no obvious resolution require a deft hand and a commitment to telling multiple stories with differing perspectives and viewpoints. 

The cartoon portrays a mother sitting in the chair of “The Media,” reading to her child from a book entitled  “Treyvon [sic] Martin and the case of yellow journalism.” The mom reads the following words: “And then ... the big bad white man killed the handsome, sweet, innocent colored boy.” And the Internet blew up, more on that in a moment.

The Trayvon Martin case has certainly captured national attention and sparked a heated discussion about racism, profiling, gun violence and, of course, journalistic integrity. All of that is appropriate and important.

About the coverage

News coverage of this story has been spotty at best. Not due to any journalistic bias, political leaning or race-based interest, but because of the beast we know as the “news cycle.”

We journalists, particularly in broadcast and online, like a tidy story — one that can be explained in a 1-minute-30-second package or 1,200 written words — one with clear cut "good vs. evil."

But life is not so simple, and homicide almost never is, so stories as complicated as this one, with multiple storylines, deep emotion and no obvious resolution, require a deft hand and a commitment to telling multiple stories with differing perspectives and viewpoints. The story of Martin’s death cannot be told in 1:30 or in 1,200 words, and as badly as we may want a good vs. evil scenario and a tidy “he did this” and “he did that” ending, there is not.

The first national coverage of this story involved a 9-1-1 call, a young black man, a wanna-be cop, a hoodie, and, as nearly all journalism organizations I saw reported, racism.

Then, days later, we learned that perhaps the young man was not as innocent as first portrayed, and perhaps there was a fight to the death, and perhaps race had nothing to do with it at all.

But all of that has been lost in the din of reaction, over-reaction and coverage of that reaction. All the while there has been little national discussion about the gun laws that exist in Florida and in Texas and many other places that might allow a street fight to turn into a killing in the first place.

Journalists must avoid the typical citizen’s desire for a rush to judgment.

There is a journalistic responsibility to provide multiple perspectives on this story, to add context, to tell the truth as best as we know it at the time — based on facts, not conjecture.

We must avoid using emotionally charged words and we must transparently acknowledge that we don’t know everything we need to know. We must commit to telling the story over and over again as new information comes to light — admitting when we were wrong.

Back to opinion and commentary

Journalism has a rich tradition of editorial commentary. Good commentary adds context, presents differing perspectives — food for thought — and encourages community conversation. At its best, good commentary and opinion writing, including good editorial cartooning, push citizens to consider alternative views and perspectives even if they disagree.

Stephanie Eisner, the Daily Texan cartoonist, not only used an emotionally charged word, but she also misspelled Martin’s first name, perhaps an editorial error that calls her work into question or perhaps as part of her editorial satire.

Ignoring the misspelling for a moment, let's think about Eisner’s use of the word, “colored.” It’s certainly a word many find offensive. A word used condescendingly by racists trying to sound reasonable by avoiding the “n-word.”

Stephanie Eisner defended her work (not the misspelling on which she did not comment) in Wednesday’s Daily Texan, discussing her intent to hold the media accountable for poor reporting. “I feel the news should be unbiased. And in the retelling of this particular event, I felt that that was not the case. My story compared this situation to yellow journalism in the past, where aspects of news stories were blown out of proportion with the intention of selling papers and enticing emotions.”

But later in the day, apparently the heat became too much, and she apologized. "I apologize for what was in hindsight an ambiguous cartoon related to the Trayvon Martin shooting," she said in a statement. "I intended to contribute thoughtful commentary on the media coverage of the incident, however this goal fell flat.

"I would like to make it explicitly clear that I am not a racist, and that I am personally appalled by the killing of Trayvon Martin. I regret any pain the wording or message of my cartoon may have caused.”

I believe that while Eisner may have made some mistakes (namely, misspelling Martin's name), she succeeded in sparking debate by using a condescending racist term — “colored” — to describe the overly simplistic racial focus of media coverage. Her work is in the best First Amendment, free speech traditions, and she had no reason to apologize.

 Yes, minimizing harm by being sensitive to victims and their families is a laudable journalistic principle, but it is trumped by our search for the truth. Sensitivity does not bring us closer to the truth. 

Predictably, the response has been all over the map: racist, defensive, supportive, damning and always emotional. Many pointed to use of the word “colored.” Here are a few examples:

In defense:

“If it is satirical irony, as I believe it to have been intended and pitched, then it is performing the duty of calling out an institution of power. That is journalists should seek the truth and report it without regard for spin…”

“…this cartoon works, and it works very well. The cartoon is mocking how the media has totally blown this into a race war of an event.”

“It is not a commentary on the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, but is rather a commentary on the media's ludicrous handling of the event and its aftermath. Many ‘journalists’ seem more interested in composing their own narratives about what happened and the reasons behind it rather than reporting the actual facts, many of which aren't yet known.”

“Thank you for this editorial cartoon. It's a shame that the death of a young black man prompted this but it's about time that we, as a nation, demand more unbiased and fair reporting from the media.”

Critical (some that are print-worthy anyway):

“I was very disappointed to see The Daily Texan publish a disrespectful cartoon trivializing the death of Trayvon Martin. Since when do people use the world “colored” anymore?”

“I am disappointed in your decision to run this story in a city and University that is plagued with race issues. I hope appropriate action is taken and that editorial staff is fired or reprimanded for the cartoon.”

“Though not a fan of censorship, work such as this has no place in The Daily Texan.”

“…when you run poorly thought out and offensive cartoons you harm the reputation of the University and the value of my degree as a result.”

Calling for censure

What becomes more troubling than simple comments, is when journalism student leaders and faculty begin calling for censure. A petition drive began Tuesday afternoon calling for The Daily Texan to censure Eisner’s work, and the president of the UT student chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), Priscilla Thompson wrote asking the paper to have more sensitivity to the “families and students who are mourning at this time,” calling the Martin case a “murder.”

It was a poor choice of words for a journalism student. It’s not a murder yet, it’s a homicide, and it’s not a journalist’s responsibility to be sensitive to the family. Yes, minimizing harm by being sensitive to victims and their families is a laudable journalistic principle, but it is trumped by our search for the truth. Sensitivity does not bring us closer to the truth.

Greg Lee, National President of the NABJ understands why people are offended by the cartoon, and he asks people to look at the cartoonist and the NABJ student chapter president’s comments from a different perspective.

“This ultimately goes back to the fact these are young people, students. They lack the perspective of what the terms mean and their history,” he said. “I understand the message trying to be sent by the cartoonist, but you can use better words, perhaps substituting ‘black’ for ‘colored.’ By using the word ‘colored,’ she really went for it all; the lay person might lose the meaning of the message due to that choice of word.

“When you make statements like this you need to be prepared for backlash.”

It’s an opinion shared by Doug Warren, The Daily Texan’s faculty advisor. Writing a column in Wednesday’s Daily Texan, Warren asks “before we castigate student cartoonists and student editors at the Texan, I would urge everyone to take a deep breath. The Texan staff is learning — to do their jobs and about the impact that their work has on the members of the community they serve."

“They're also finding out what it's like to be in the glare of the media spotlight. Having been there myself, I can assure you, it's a lesson that won't be lost on them. Beyond that, if we all tone down the rhetoric, perhaps we'll all learn something.”

An attack on free speech

The calls for censure are an attack on free speech, no different than those of tyrants and dictators who shut down the Internet when things don’t please them. And it’s our job as journalists and citizens, to defend Eisner’s right to draw and The Daily Texan’s right to publish, even when it may be disagreeable, even offensive.

There is simply no way to present cogent media criticism or present unpopular perspectives in a traditional news story, which is exactly why we need editorial commentary, opinion, letters to the editor and editorial cartooning.

Yes, we may choose to disagree with the opinion, we may even be offended, but the point is, good editorial opinion makes us react and think, and that is never a bad thing.

Occasionally we should be reminded of Voltaire’s poignant message: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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