The student newspaper at Northern Illinois University this week ran the controversial Danish political cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. The student paper at the University of Illinois is still reeling from the consequences of running them.
Harvard’s conservative alternative paper has run them. On Wednesday, so did the alternative student paper at Illinois State University.
By this point, none of the student journalists could fail to see that the subject was a delicate one. But for reasons both carefully pondered and less so, they went ahead anyway.
“We weighed the potential backlash, the potential fallout and decided being afraid of backlash should not keep us from running a story, because where do you draw the line?” said Northern Star editor-in-chief Derek Wright, as letters—many incensed, some supportive—began to arrive at the Star’s offices at Northern Illinois. “We felt it was something that was our responsibility.”
As violent reactions to the cartoons simmer in the Muslim world—at least three more people were killed in riots in Pakistan on Wednesday—the controversial cartoons are trickling into student newspapers here.
Faculty advisers and journalism ethicists have rushed to frame the discussions with students over handling the images in their own campus papers. As a further sign of their topical importance, a panel on the cartoons and their aftermath was added to a student journalism convention scheduled for this weekend in Chicago.
“Typical things we deal with as advisers are naming a rape victim or printing obscenity,” said Lance Speere, president of College Media Advisers, a national college media group. “Seldom do all those issues occur at the exact same time on all of our campuses. But this is.”
For the most part, news organizations—including the Chicago Tribune—have decided it is enough to write about the cartoons and their aftermath without publishing them. Only two major U.S. newspapers have run the cartoons, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the American-Statesman in Austin, Texas.
“The nature of the offensiveness alone creates a significant barrier to publishing or republishing the image, even if you can justify the original publication, which I think is not easy to do,” said ethicist Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute for journalism.
The cartoons were first published in late September by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and reprinted in other European publications in recent weeks. They portray the prophet as a terrorist, with one depicting Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb.
At the U. of I., the Daily Illini’s publication of the cartoons sparked community debate, amid anger and frustration in the Muslim community. Muslim activists from Chicago traveled to Urbana-Champaign to attend a forum on the issue.
“We discuss pornography in papers without showing images,” said Ahmed M. Rehab, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago. “We discuss violent acts of war and terror without showing graphic images of maimed corpses. We discuss anti-Semitism without reprinting vile anti-Semitic depictions. So this editor’s argument that we had to print the racist cartoons just to understand the situation really was paper-thin, and a lot of people saw straight through it.”
Meanwhile, the Daily Illini’s suspended editor, Acton Gorton, on Wednesday hired a Chicago-based Muslim-American civil rights attorney, Junaid Afeef. Gorton said he was defamed by the Illini’s retraction editorial, which blamed the decision to publish the cartoons on a “renegade editor.”
“I just want to make sure I have good representation for whatever happens now,” Gorton said. “My career is in jeopardy.”
The Daily Illini backlash was fresh in the minds of editors at NIU, where the Star’s editorial board decided to publish the political cartoons last Thursday, but postponed doing so until Monday.
Officials said they delayed to look into copyright questions about re-publication. But it was just as well they waited, Wright said. The reaction in Champaign prompted them to rethink how to present the material.
“By chance, we were able to see the feedback U. of I. had gotten,” Wright said. “Luckily, we had those extra days so we could use ways to do it a bit differently.”
The 12 cartoons were run inside on Page 3 of the tabloid paper, with an editorial headlined “More Than Cartoons” on the front page. Alongside the cartoons, an article explained the controversy and student opinions. On Page 8, the Star ran an opinion column from a student Muslim group explaining objections to the images.
Feedback on the decision has been split, said Wright and Jim Killam, the paper’s adviser.
Some people, including Muslims, said they objected to the cartoons but appreciated the newspaper’s muted presentation, the Star said. Wright has been asked to sit on a panel Saturday to discuss the cartoons during the annual Illinois College Press Association conference in Chicago, he said. Student journalists everywhere have been thinking about the issue, some less aggressively than others.
At Ohio University, home to the Scripps Howard School of Journalism, student editors had “theoretical discussions” about running the cartoons, but never gave serious thought to publishing them, a senior editor said.
They briefly discussed publishing an Associated Press photo that showed images of the cartoons in the foreground. Then AP pulled the photo.
“We thought, if AP is making that decision, we weren’t going to step on anyone’s toes,” said Dan Rinderle, associate editor of the Post, the university’s student-led daily paper.
“It was more than we wanted to deal with.”