January 10, 2008

Crossing the line just because you can?

Searching through the online version of The Sun for the latest celebrity gossip, a two-month-old article caught my attention. Its’ headline said: “German mag’s sick Maddie joke.”

The article, which The Sun’s headline is referring to, which was actually more like a collage, had been designed as an ad showing pictures of Maddie on different products like Kinder chocolate or domestic cleaner. The headline of the collage says “Find Maddie” and the subtitle promises that whoever finds a product with Maddie’s face on it gets the product half price.

The Sun called this collage, which was printed in the German magazine Titanic, a “sick spoof” and an “advert for bad taste”. But is it really that bad?

To be honest, I was quite shocked, when I first saw the collage, thinking how extremely inappropriate it was to make fun of this girl and the tragic story of her missing. But when I looked at the collage and the sarcastic tone of its’ text passages again, I understood that the authors did not make fun of Maddie, but of the huge media circus that had been created over the past months since her missing.

Sarcasm or not, the collage evoked some serious outrage among British newspapers and, of course, Maddie’s parents. But defending the right of media freedom and freedom of expression, Titanic’s editor Oliver Nagel stood behind this article - despite the bad reactions it had provoked: “We don't go round apologizing for the articles we are printing.“

So, who is right? What is more important? A code of ethics, which states that in “cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively“? Or journalists and editors defending press freedom?

Writing down those questions, I cannot help but think back to September 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published caricatures of Muhammad and made the debate about what is more important - press freedom or the respect for different religious views - a political issue.

The newspaper had published caricatures of the Muslim prophet Mohammad, which, among others, show him wearing a bomb instead of his turban. The Muslim community felt insulted by this pictures – not only by their sarcastic touch, but also because it is not allowed by Muslim law to portray the prophet.

When Western newspapers reprinted the caricatures to demonstrate that hey would not tolerate censorship – even of articles or pictures offending religious feelings – and Muslims went out on the streets and burning American, Danish or German flags, the ‘debate’ got out of control and in the end took the lives of 144 people.

What was supposed to be a joke had became a worldwide debate about different believes and about what is legal and what is ethical:
Although it was technically not illegal to print the caricatures because the German as well as the American constitution protect the right for freedom of expression and for press freedom, it was not ethical to print and reprint the pictures according to the German press code of ethics.
It states that it is unethical to disrespect people’s dignity with pictures or words and to hurt religious or political feelings.

So, what is it then in the end that a journalist should follow? Should one defend his rights - or basic rights, to be more precisely, which generations of journalists and freethinkers before us had to fight and sometimes die for? Or should we respect others people’s feelings and believes, although we don’t share them? Should the German journalists apologize to Maddie’s parents like the Danish newspaper apologized to the Muslim community?

In the end, the best way to go as a journalist is probably to make a decision that allows one to sleep at night without having a bad conscious.
And although, I think it is important to push the limits to see how far one can go, I don’t think you should publish anything just because the law says you can.

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