Was it right?
When does a fact do more harm than good?
When does the objective presentation of a fact become irresponsible?
Is it ever irresponsible to present facts?
These are a few of the questions newsrooms across the country deal with every day, just as they were here before the Nov. 1 front-page article titled “Junk Mail.” The story described a postcard, sent to mailboxes Oct. 31, that depicted three community leaders as cartoonish clowns. Beneath the image, a line of smaller figures depicted a drug addict, a gang member, a trans person, a homeless man, a suicide bomber, a racist image of an African-American with the face of a primate, and a woman wearing a burka.
The Press wasn’t the only voice asking whether publishing the image was the right course of action.
Images instantly — and sometimes, overwhelmingly — convey a degree of truth writing can’t match. Thousands of stories informed the public about the Vietnam War between 1959 and 1975, but no article had the profound impact of two photographs: one of a South Vietnamese police chief executing a suspected Viet Cong official on a Saigon street during the 1968 Tet Offensive; the other of a naked, screaming 9-year-old girl running alongside other children after a 1972 Napalm strike.
Both photographs elicited hard questions among editors from New York to Los Angeles. Both photographers wound up changing the course of history. And both won a Pulitzer Prize for their work.
The first question our newsroom asked was likely the same as those asked about the grisly photos from Vietnam: Does the image create offense that outweigh the reader’s need to absorb and process news?
In this case, the answer depends on the reader’s response to purposefully hurtful images. The cartoon negatively depicted members of minority and marginalized communities. Referring to a human being with black skin as a primate is objectively racist.
The image printed on the mailer emerged into the public sphere for the first time as a social media post on Oct. 9 at 3:08 p.m.
“Another commissioned cartoon for the political scene,” read the caption above it, followed by a bevy of hashtags celebrating the art form. #politicalcartoons. #classicillustration. #cdaidaho.
The page was headlined “Daniel Brannan Art.”
Brannan is the former chairman of the Kootenai County Constitution Party and a Hayden resident. He has confirmed he created the drawing; he did not say who commissioned it. In a letter to the editor, he denies the portrayal of the African-American was racist.
Geoffrey Carr, associate professor of journalism and communication at North Idaho College, said what matters is the intent of the news organization when it publishes the image.
“The first obligation of the media is to inform,” Carr said. “In this situation, you don’t want to promote hate speech, and you don’t want the media to intentionally perpetuate a situation where someone gets hurt. In this case, you were trying to inform the public of something happening in the community that was clearly hateful and affected your readers.”
Carr added the need to inform isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Several clear exceptions exist — some of which are dictated in the Associated Press Stylebook.
“Publishing the names of rape victims, for example,” Carr cited. “This is factual information, and it’s informative, but the damage it would cause to the community far outweighs any informative value.”
Carr agreed that these guidelines err on the side of caution, but said that the balancing act between what is fit for print and what is inflammatory is changing — seemingly by the hour.
“One of the troubles news organizations face is the medium,” he said. “To get a democracy, its citizens have to be informed. But when should that information be released? Being careful is important, but in today’s [climate], one of the troubles of online media is, the deadline is always now. People are getting their information faster and faster in a competitive marketplace. One of the questions that will come out of this new market is, when will that line stop moving?”
The Press determined the postcard’s informative value was valuable and posed no imminent risk to the public. What’s more, it addressed another concern: Some are convinced local claims of hate literature distributed through the area is either the work of isolated loners dwindling in numbers or the imaginings of a media gone mad.
“More #FAKENEWS propaganda,” Stephen Stanley wrote on Facebook after a Press story informing the public in an Oct. 11 post about a white supremacist flyer hidden among merchandise in a Sherman Avenue shop. “Unidentified couple reportedly ?? COME ON..this trash…”
“Fake news is nothing more than a concerted effort to discredit an argument,” Carr observed. “It has no value in a democratic dialogue.”
“Maybe people would be ‘friends’ if they were just left to be themselves instead of groups like [Love Lives Here CDA] constantly focusing on the negatives of a few instead of the positives of the majority,” Jan Gore wrote on a Facebook post attached to an Oct. 27 Press article describing hate literature distributed through the Coeur d’Alene community.
The decision to print the Nov. 1 “Junk Mail” story drew additional scrutiny of the postcard’s sender or senders.
“Can you explain why the article ‘Junk Mail’ was on the front page?’ Hayden’s Karen Groswith asked in a Nov. 6 letter to the editor. “First that flyer should have simply been thrown in the trash. It is the opinion of a very small group of individuals.”
“It’s a very small minority of folks luckily that have this problem,” Lucy Erickson wrote in solidarity to Groswith’s letter. “People who received this hateful card should have just trashed it and the media should not even have mentioned it. The publicity probably was exactly what this group was looking for and the Press fell for it big time by placing the article plus a photo of the card on the front page.”
That wasn’t the only factor The Press considered.
Five days after Dan English opened his mailbox to discover the postcard, polls opened in Coeur d’Alene. Christie Wood, one of the citizens depicted as a clown on the mailer, serves as president of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, a group founded in the aftermath of the Hayden-based Aryan Nations’ bankruptcy. She was running for the seat held by the soon-to-be-retiring Ron Edinger. Wood, who posed for the picture traced onto the postcard during a ceremony promoting an anti-hate campaign called “Love Lives Here CDA,” ended up defeating Elaine Price in the Nov. 5 election, taking 62 percent of the votes.
“I feel [the “Junk Mail” story] gave my opponent free press,” Price said after the votes had been tallied. “Because she’s part of that human rights task force, and because she was at that [ceremony], she was interviewed for the story.”
While Price acknowledged that she, too, was interviewed for the Nov. 1 story, she said the narrative painted by the incident led some voters toward a painful fallacy.
“There are people who assumed I had something to do with it,” Price said. “They assumed I had something to do with it because my opponent was featured in the mailer ... There are people assuming I had something to do with it or had knowledge of it. And unless they ask me, they assume that knowledge is correct, because they didn’t take the time to ask me.”
Price, for the record, denies any knowledge of or role in the mailing campaign. She said the damage done to her reputation could take years to repair.
“I don’t run across the type of people who would send this out,” she said. “I don’t run across these types of people, and I don’t think that’s who predominantly lives here. I don’t want to be categorized like that. People are going to naturally assume I had something to do with it; I’d believe it. To me, it tarnishes my reputation, and if people really got to know me, they’d know that’s not what I’m about.
“That’s what’s been pretty eye-opening about this election,” she said. “People who don’t know me and never got to know me came up to me and told me what they thought of me, and they never got to know me.”
Carr said running potentially damaging information close to an election is always a tough decision, but one the media has to make.
“If it was the day before the election, or maybe two days before, yeah, that would be a problem,” Carr conceded. “But five or six days out, and a candidate has time to respond ... What matters is what damage it could do to the public if they are not informed. For example, let’s say a politician tells a racy joke. Are [the media] going to be held accountable at the risk of electing somebody who might not represent the people the way they think he does? That’s a tough decision that news organizations have to make. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.”
That said, the NIC professor for the last eight years stressed that just because a decision might be right, it doesn’t mean everyone else is wrong.
“It was a close call,” he said. “Because of our history in Coeur d’Alene, I think it’s legitimate news. But there’s a lot of distrust in the media, and people are sharing their complaints with you for a reason. I’m not saying people who have those complaints are wrong; far from it, I think those complaints are perfectly legitimate.”
Ultimately, Carr stood by the Press’s decision to run the postcard.
“The postcard was not a positive image of the community,” he said. “It enforced a lot of stereotypes about the area. But there’s a reason freedom of the press is in the First Amendment. The media, they get heaped upon, when really, they’re just trying to help readers make the most informed decisions.”