By Olivier Knox
News organizations must “recalibrate” how they cover violent conflicts or terrorists in the aftermath of the Jan. 7 massacre at Charlie Hebdo, the latest in a series of bloody incidents showing that Islamist extremists increasingly view reporters as legitimate targets.
That’s just one of the stark conclusions Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric drew from a panel of experts convened for an unprecedented live-stream show to discuss the aftermath of the attack last week on the French satirical newspaper.
“We've gone from being in the crossfire to being ... right in the crosshairs,” said Charlie Sennott, executive director of the GroundTruth Project and the co-founder of Global Post, the news outlet James Foley was working for when he was abducted and later killed by the so-called Islamic State. “This is a new front that has been opened up by Islamic extremists in the last few years, where they are going out and targeting journalists.”
Robert Mahoney, the deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, agreed. “You used to need a journalist to tell a story,” he said. But the rise of social media has made that less true, while “capturing a journalist” generates either coverage or, in some cases, much-needed cash from ransom payments.
Emma Beals, a multimedia journalist who has covered Syria since 2012 and Iraq since 2013, said some of her Muslim friends reacted with puzzled anger at Charlie Hebdo’s decision to put a cartoon of Muhammad on the cover of its first issue since the attack.
Some expressed “quite a bit of outrage,” while others wanted to work through “why would that be something that we thought would be a good idea,” she said.
Should news outlets publish the new cartoon?
“It’s a decision to be made by each and every newsroom,” said Beals, who rejected the argument that not publishing it amounts to betraying freedom of expression. “Just because you have the right to publish it doesn’t mean you have to exercise that right to the fullest extent all of the time. With rights come responsibilities, and part of that responsibility is thinking about tolerance.”
“These organizations that published as part of the reporting on this story made the right decision in publishing the cartoon from their point of view because they’re telling a story,” said Mahoney. “But the right to publish or not to publish is part of freedom of expression, so each editor has the right to decide what goes on his or her website.”
Columbia professor and independent journalist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, who drew fire from some in the Muslim world when he posted a picture of himself holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign on Twitter, said some will try to take advantage of the newspaper’s new cover.
Shihab-Eldin underlined that Muhammad was “only sacred to Islam” and suggested that a kind of “religious nationalism,” rather than faith, fueled the outrage.
“People are going to capitalize on” the cover, he predicted. It may serve as fuel “for those who are extremists, who are radicals, to say, ‘See, this is a perpetual clash between Islam and the West, this is a war between Islam and the West.’”
*Clarification: While Charles Sennott is a co-founder of GlobalPost, he is currently Executive Director of The GroundTruth Project, an independent non-profit, and is no longer employed by GlobalPost. He was not involved in the discussion or decision on whether or not to run the cover of the January 12th issue of “Charlie Hebdo.” GlobalPost did publish the cover, within the context of photographs, and has on rare occasion published depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in the past.