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Case Study

Case Study: Controversial Cartoons

In light of the recent events in Paris, we are sharing a case study from one of our journalism ethics museum classes. Case studies are used in our classes to discuss ethical issues journalists and photojournalists face on a daily basis.

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A Danish newspaper publishes 12 editorial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, some of which depict him as a terrorist. Islamic tradition strictly prohibits images of the prophet. Muslim organizations find the cartoons offensive and blasphemous, and say they are part of a smear campaign against their religion.

Several thousand people demonstrate peacefully outside the newspaper’s office in Copenhagen, but when the cartoons are reprinted in European newspapers, the protests expand and become violent. Danish embassies are set on fire, boycotts of Danish goods begin, and some Muslim countries pull their ambassadors from Denmark.

As the editor of a U.S. newspaper, how do you cover the escalating controversy?

  1. Ignore the protests. Stories could exacerbate the issue.
  2. Write about the protests. Describe the cartoons at issue, but do not publish the cartoons.
  3. Write about the protests and reprint one or more of the cartoons.

Questions to Consider

  • Is the information newsworthy? Why or why not? Is this a story the public needs to know about?
  • What are potential consequences of your decision?
  • What is the role of a news organization?
  • What is the paper’s social responsibility?
  • How does the sensitive nature of the story – in the Islamic culture, it is considered highly blasphemous to depict Muhammad – affect your decision?
  • Is there a difference between professional and personal ethics in this case?
  • Does the media have extra responsibilities when dealing with an issue that could have global implications?
  • Would you approach the story differently for a website, social media, television or radio/podcast? Explain.


Tips for Student Discussion: In small groups, students should decide which of the options they think is the best choice. Challenge the students to think outside the box and come up with their own options if necessary. Ethically speaking, we hope journalists are accurate, fair and clear. Are all three of the characteristics met by the option chosen? Why or why not? Learn more about the outcome of the Danish newspaper case.

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