Why AP didn’t run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

In this Sept.19, 2012 file photo,  Stephane Charbonnier also known as Charb ,  the editor of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays the front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. AP moved this image on the wire this week. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

In this Sept.19, 2012 file photo, Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays a front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. AP moved this image on the wire this week. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

The attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris raised many questions about how news agencies handle controversial images. We answered some of them Wednesday in response to calls from reporters and bloggers. Below is a summary of the questions and our replies.

Did AP run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons mocking Islam?
AP tries hard not to be a conveyor belt for images and actions aimed at mocking or provoking people on the basis of religion, race or sexual orientation. We did not run the “Danish cartoons” mocking Muhammad in 2005, or the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the same type. While we run many photos that are politically or socially provocative, there are areas verging on hate speech and actions where we feel it is right to be cautious.

This policy is consistent with our approach to sound bites and text reporting, where we avoid racist, religious and sexual slurs.

But don’t such images and speech sometimes make news?
They do, and we may need to describe hate speech and images when they lead to attacks or arrests. But we limit ourselves to brief descriptions, often without the images or slurs themselves. Routinely publicizing hate speech and images can lead to a “can-you-top-this” situation where provocateurs produce increasingly offensive material for news media to lap up and redistribute, accusing them of censorship when they fail to bite. We don’t want to fan such flames.

We also believe we should not rotely transmit propaganda images designed to sow fear and terror. These could include images that display hostages in demeaning situations, prisoners being abused or the bloodied bodies of vanquished enemies. Sometimes such images, or crops of them, may be essential to convey an event.

On occasion we’ve run a few seconds of video of a hostage. We also ran the well-known photos of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But any such material requires discussion by our editors and a judgment that it is truly newsworthy. We never transmit such material simply because “it’s out there” and others are carrying them.

What about images mocking Christianity or Judaism?
We try to be even-handed. We have declined to run cartoons demeaning Jews and the Holocaust, although we have referred to them in stories when the reaction to them has made news. In the urgency of a 24-hour newsroom, some images get through despite our best efforts; we removed from our service some photos we put out showing a crowd in Afghanistan burning a cross to disparage Christianity.

These are AP news policies for the pictures we distribute in our news reports. In addition, the company has a separate commercial photo business called AP Images that, among other things, has an archive of 22 million photos, including AP pictures that predate our current editorial standards and pictures from many other photo partners. Sometimes photos that don’t meet our current editorial standards are found among those millions of pictures.

Thus, on Wednesday we removed from AP Images some Charlie Hebdo cartoons that had come from a non-AP source. We also became aware that a 25-year-old image of the controversial “Piss Christ” photo was among the photos there, and removed it. Of course, every removal is a judgment call, and we took some flak over the decision on “Piss Christ.”

We learned long ago that some of our news decisions will be controversial. While there’s certainly a slippery slope that leads to avoiding any image that could cause offense, there’s an equally slippery one that leads to suspending our editorial judgment and allowing our news service to be hijacked by whatever offensive image is circulating on a given day. Our best approach is to try to be as thoughtful and even-handed as we can, knowing we’ll sometimes be criticized for a decision not everyone likes.

But what about the censorship issue? Who is the AP to decide what images the world will see?
This question was more valid a couple of decades ago, when a very small number of international news agencies “owned the wires” that distributed photos around the world. If the agencies chose not to run a photo, few were likely ever to see it. Even at that time, we felt a responsibility to use our judgment and distribute only those photos we were comfortable with.

But now the censorship argument has largely evaporated. The most hotly disputed images of recent years can usually be found easily via search engines and social networks by anyone who wants to see them. In the Internet era, we are free to edit our news service in line with our own professional consciences and the valid needs of our readers and subscribers without people being able to claim we’re making some decision for the entire world. We have an editorial policy, and that’s what you get from AP.

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About Tom Kent

Deputy managing editor and standards editor of The Associated Press, responsible for accuracy and balance across all AP news services. Frequent contributor to forums and conferences on newsroom ethics and organization. Adjunct professor at the School of International Affairs and Journalism School of Columbia University. Former AP correspondent or bureau chief in Russia, Iran, Belgium, Australia and the United States. Graduate of Yale University. Languages: French, Russian, Spanish. @tjrkent