April 22, 2024


There are events, both joyous and mournful, that will remain with us for our entire lives. Each generation has touchstones which resonate with each individual in a different way as they recollect their own personal story in reflection of the event. The shooting at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo seems a likely candidate for a bullet point we’ll remember (“we” in the national, even international, sense) when looking back on this time in history. The rampage of ISIS throughout the Middle East, Russian aggression in Crimea and Ebola ravaged West Africa have been major international stories for quite some time but the Hebdo shootings have supplanted them, at least for the time being, on the airwaves and pages of the Canadian news media.

Nearly every news service in Canada, from the massive nationals to the small regionals, featured some form of coverage in the days after the tragedy. One of the prevailing issues about reporting the story was whether to publish or show the cover of the November 2011 cover of Charlie Hebdo, which the attackers cited as a driving reason behind their assault.

While millions around the world took to the streets in support of free speech and not cowing to the fear mongering of a maniacal few, some in the Canadian media found the issue of displaying the cover divisive. Canadians found it particularly difficult to agree on whether to proclaim “je suis Charlie,” or “je ne suis pas Charlie.”

French language newspapers in Quebec showed a bit more solidarity in displaying the cartoon cover with many prominent papers publishing it. La Presse, La Tribune, Le Devoir, Le Droit, Le Journal de Montreal and Le Journal de Quebec all published the image of Muhammad. “Attacking someone simply for their ideas and opinions is an unacceptable impediment to democracy,” the papers said in a joint statement.

CBC News, on the other hand, decided not to run the cover.

“This is not a ban, and it isn’t censorship,” said David Studer, director of Journalistic Standards and Practises, in an email to CBC staff after the decision was rendered to not publish the cartoons.

He went on to add that, “We are being consistent with our historic journalistic practices around this story, not because of fear, but out of respect for the beliefs and sensibilities of the mass of Muslim believers about images of the Prophet. Similarly, we wouldn’t publish cartoons likely to dismay or outrage mainstream followers of other religions.”

The Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail also decided not to run the cartoon of Muhammad, leaving the National Post as the only major Canadian newspaper outlet to run the cover as part of their coverage. Immediately after hearing about the shooting one of the first questions many people asked was what did the cover look like that got 12 people killed.

The Globe and Mail’s coverage of the shooting featured several of Hebdo’s less inflammatory cartoons, their inclusion cited as necessary for context. However, the cartoons most crucial to understanding the story weren’t included. Why? The National Post’s Chris Selley suggested in an opinion piece that it goes beyond mere politeness to “a preference not to make a fuss.”

Many readers, judging at least from comment on online articles, were curious about how decisions are made in the newsroom in situations like the Hebdo shooting.

Larry Cornies, co-ordinator of Conestoga’s print and broadcast journalism programs, noted what must be considered before something potentially offensive is run.

“There are several things that editors must consider when making a decision such as this. First, is publication of the material libellous? Second, is it offensive? Third, what will the audience of the publication or news outlet think of the editors’ decision (is it editorially defensible)? Fourth, is material easily available anywhere else?”

The Toronto Star’s publisher John Cruickshank decided to take a more pointed approach in his explanation of why the paper didn’t publish the cover in question.
“… the Charlie Hebdo massacre is very much a French phenomenon,” he said in an article on Jan. 16.

This seems a bit off the mark considering the very recent examples of similar issues causing strife like the Jyllands-Posten incident, the Lars Vilks controversy, the Salman Rushdie apostasy or South Park’s censorship, none of which were based in France but featured a similar inciting incident.

Looking back on the event, outlets involved in covering the Charlie Hebdo shooting were ubiquitously aided, facilitated and advanced by the fact that freedom of expression exists alongside a free press.

The question that seems to remain in the aftermath is, sommes-nous Charlie?

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