On Media: How Far Do We Push the Self-Censorship Envelope?

Jan 20, 2015 / By THINKINK

As a PR professional, I’m often called upon to provide counsel on brands’ management – or rather, mismanagement – of crises, misspoken executives, or outright blunders.  Regardless of my personal views, I have to remain objective, steadfast and not add to an already polarizing situation.

This post, however, is less objective, as I reflect on what the recent attack on French publication Charlie Hebdo potentially means for our “informed” world and media landscape.

Source: AFP - Stuart Williams
Source: AFP – Stuart Williams

As I read Frederic Fillioux’ “Fear is not an editorial opinion,” my mind gravitated to the oft-quoted words of Irish statesman Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

The do-nothing vs. do-something debate is central to this issue of freedom of the press, censorship and retaliation for ideas to which not everyone subscribes. Granted, it’s tough to gauge what to do or say, especially when watching events as horrific as those in Paris last week. But because the complaint by terrorists who attacked and killed 11 Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and staffers (then killed a police officer and wounded 11 others) was specifically about words and images they found offensive to their beliefs and values, should the media establishment’s responses be words and images of equal measure (or stronger) — both to counteract the terrorists’ goal to suppress “unacceptable” ideas and to reinforce media’s firm commitment to stand its ground?

This is a tough call, especially for the editor who is at the helm of such a polarizing publication. On the one hand, you insist on exercising your libertie. But you also have the responsibility to not insult, en masse.

Imagine a world where, because you or I don’t like what we have heard or seen, we react by harming the individual(s) we feel are responsible? This action or reaction is, of course, counter to everything that we, as civilized humans, have been taught about respect, tolerance, understanding, freedom of individual thought or expression.

But freedom of the press and our freedom of expression does not grant us the freedom to insult.

 Let’s NOT Go Back to the Dark Ages, Please
Many issues come into play when a writer, editor, cartoonist, blogger, public speaker, elected  official – anyone with an opinion and a voice — is threatened, firebombed or slain simply for self-expression. Should media entities not publish information because some might be offended? Isn’t that counter to democracy and our right to discourse and dissent? On the scale of freedom of expression vs. personal/public safety, which principle trumps the other?

Just how willing are journalists willing to risk their lives for a cause or a principle? A great deal, it seems.

During his 2015 Golden Globes acceptance of the Cecille B. DeMille Award, actor George Clooney praised the millions of French citizens who marched Jan. 11 – four days after the attack – in support of their country and its freedoms:  “They didn’t march in protest. They marched in support of the idea that we will not walk in fear,” said Clooney.

Maybe that is the key lesson to be learned from this awful event – that reasoned, tolerant people and media professionals should not walk in fear. No person should. Yet as ethnic and religious conflicts continue to spread in every corner of our world, media professionals will have to find new ways to walk together safely, draw a line in the sand and say, “no more,” cognizant of their ultimate intent.  My point is that freedom to express is our right, but freedom to insult is where we cross the line between tolerance and understanding, to ignorance.

 Living With the Shackles of Fear
Media organizations have long been attuned to security risks, whether sending reporters to cover wars, epidemics, natural disasters and the like.

As publicity fades about the Charlie Hebdo attack and another tragedy takes over the airwaves and our decreased attention span, journalists, news organizations and media professionals everywhere will likely implement more security measures at job sites (on-site security guards, tightened access to offices, printing plants, etc.,) or provide more extensive training to writers, photographers, cartoonists and videographers about how to navigate in a potentially unsafe world.  And, importantly, how to navigate that fine line between expression and insult.

It’s just one way of making sure that our world of ideas – even those that are unpopular to some – remain available, able to be expressed and shared with the rest of the world, to read or not. Because all of them – the words, the images and the people responsible for sharing them – are that important to a free, tolerant society.

For centuries, we have fought hard for the right to be heard and to express – without punishment or death.  Imagine if we couldn’t…


Contact Us

Sign up for our insights on the convergence of business and PR