Journalistic responsibility and Charlie Hebdo

By: Matt Hamilton, Sports Editor

Over winter break, I somehow found myself planning an impromptu vacation across the pond. I put the week-long trip to Paris and London together in less than a week, because I won’t get an opportunity to travel without constraints for some time.

First up was Paris. I was busy picking out the best spots to see in the City of Love when news of a mass shooting came across the screen on Jan. 7. As the details began to seep through, we figured out that this was a targeted shooting.

Just to give you a brief review: Two gunman entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine that often grabs attention with its elaborate illustrations, and killed 12 people.

This all reportedly came as retaliation for a front cover that featured an illustration of the Islamic prophet Mohammed. It wasn’t the first time that the paper ruffled Islamic feathers, though, as this was the culmination of a few years of anger.

With this in mind, I headed to Paris just five days after the attacks there. For me, the journalist, I was interested in the citizens’ response to the tragedy. Would they back away from the freedom of expression? Or would this freedom become even more intertwined with patriotism than before?

What I saw was a shaken city, but one that bonded around one thing: the power of the press and the freedom of speech. On Jan. 14, the first issue of Charlie Hebdo since the shooting came out, and citizens of Paris formed lines at newsstands that spanned whole streets at times, all of them trying to get a piece of French history and to stand up for the magazine’s right to publish what it chooses.

I woke up too late to get a paper (I’m not a big fan of the time change), but I witnessed the millions coming out to get the magazine and it was a powerful sight for sure. With a showing like that, many would believe that this tragedy would bring about a stronger support of the freedom of speech worldwide.

This is certainly true in France, but in the past few days, opposition has started to rise up. Many are questioning how much freedom the press should have, using the shooting as an example of the repercussions of abuse of that freedom.

This situation brings up an ethical dilemma that has existed as long as journalism has. How much is too much freedom? When do we label something abuse of freedom instead of the exercise of it?

Before I go any further with this, I will say that nothing warrants the attacks that occurred in Paris. I saw firsthand the pain that citizens of Paris had to deal with, and there is no rationalization for how the gunmen were right.

However, the question that journalists have to ask is this: Was Charlie Hebdo wrong in printing the cover, as well? It surely sounds evil to question the magazine’s cover in a time like this, but we have to look as this objective.

There’s no black and white answer to this question. Many believe that Charlie Hebdo was in the right because they had the right to publish the cover. Others think that the magazine went too far and the offensiveness outweighed the value.

I’m not giving my opinion on this issue, because I haven’t totally made it up. I think the magazine could have been more responsible in what it produced, but I also think it can’t be scared to publish what it wants, which if you have seen the first issue since the attacks, you’d understand that they are not afraid.

I think the lesson that journalists, whether at a school newspaper or a national one, can take from this is that we need to be more critical of what we produce. That does not mean we should be shy about producing controversial content, but we have to ask whether it has value and does not cross the boundaries of insensitivity.

I loved seeing the French people stand up for the freedom of speech and the press and I wish more people in the United States would do the same. However, this power is a tool and needs to be used with care.

As with any type of power, the freedom of speech can be abused. I’ve seen it all the time. But we need to be responsible with that power. Je suis Charlie, mais nous devons être intelligent.

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