Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Je suis une libre penseur

We are outraged, and our hearts are aching for our brethren in France.

Terrorists have struck yet again, believing they can bend the will of the world through violence.

This time they murdered eight staff members of Charlie Hebdo, the weekly satire magazine in Paris, plus a visitor to the paper, a maintenance worker and two police officers.

Then on Friday they murdered four more people who were taken hostage while out shopping for groceries.

The shooters said they were seeking vengeance for the magazine’s provocative cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

A reader wrote me last week, asking how journalists were reacting to the attack on Charlie Hebdo. His thoughtful questions bear answering.

Q: In the decision on whether or not to publish, how do you as an editor of a newspaper account for people who might feel offended?

A: At The News Tribune, we consider whether a story or column or visual element will offend our readers. We try not to offend them just for the shock value.

We try not to use swear words, for instance, unless they are critical to the meaning of the story.

But we published swear words a few years ago after a city councilman used them during a public meeting. The whole point of the story was whether his language was appropriate. We printed some of his words so readers could judge for themselves.

Our definition of offensiveness is subjective; however, and readers don’t always agree with us.

We published a photo last year of a grieving mother at the moment she learned that her child had been killed. The picture offended some readers.

Others agreed with our decision, believing her reaction captured the depth of her loss more than words could convey. The photo also illustrated the caring of a police chaplain holding her as she wept.

Q: Does the answer turn at all on if the material’s main purpose is to provoke and satirize rather than the purposes that a regular news article seeks to serve?

A: Somewhat. A news piece should come as close as possible to telling the full story.

Sometimes the facts of a story themselves are offensive or provocative. This happens frequently in court stories when describing a crime. We try to give people enough facts to decide for themselves what they think, but stop short of sensationalizing.

Columns and other opinion pieces are intended to inform, educate and sometimes be provocative. We hope we have readers nodding their heads with opinions they share, while also challenging themselves by reading opinions they oppose.

We think they can be provocative without being offensive.

Our satire column, The Nose, sometimes gets us into trouble with readers who think we’ve gone too far. The line is a delicate one to draw.

Q: Does the answer change in the face of the Paris attack against free speech? For example, does a newspaper feel any impulse to publish the same material that the Paris magazine published to express a defiant solidarity with fellow journalists who are under attack?

A: The question came up in our newsroom: Even though the Charlie Hebdo cartoons wouldn’t meet our publication standards, should we run them in a show of solidarity?

The question itself is ironic. If we don’t want terrorists dictating standards for Charlie Hebdo, why would we allow their act to change our own publication standards?

Charlie Hebdo’s in-your-face political satire works in the raucous world of French discourse. The magazine would — and did — publish a cartoon of a priest having sex and another of Muhammad bent over naked.

We wouldn’t.

We can defend their free speech rights while remaining true to our own.

Q: Why does an attack on journalists, like an assassination, feel like more than a murder and more like an assault on the community?

A: Our reader provided a perfectly good answer to his own question in the email: “I expect it feels this way because it is also an attack on the community’s right to read, and think, without fear.”

Absolutely.

These terrorists, ultimately, were out to kill more than free speech. They were out to kill free thinking. They were targeting readers as much as journalists.

Journalists around the world last week took up the banner of “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie.” They posted the words on their Facebook pages and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in their newsrooms holding printouts bearing those words.

It is appropriate that journalists ban together to defend their role in a free society.

But how about this banner: “Je suis une libre penseur.” According to my online French translator, that means “I am a free thinker.”

Yes, our hearts are aching for our brethren in France. Beyond the journalists, that includes all free thinkers in France and around the world.

But most important is our response to the terrorists.

Je suis une libre penseur.

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