Saturday, September 08, 2007

U of Virginia paper faces cartoon controversy

The Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, apologized Thursday for publishing a controversial comic strip after more than 100 students protested against the cartoon outside the newspaper office.

“We apologize to the entire university community for the poor editorial judgment exercised in running a comic that is so clearly inappropriate and hurtful,” the newspaper’s wrote in an editorial titled “Worth 1,000 Words” that ran in Thursday’s edition.

Though unfortunate, the situation offers some important lessons on how student newspapers should handle controversial content.

The comic, “Quirksmith,” was drawn by Cavalier Daily Graphics Editor Grant Woolard. Captioned “Ethiopian Food Fight,” the comic depicted emaciated black men dressed in loincloths fighting each other for food.

“We apologize to the entire University community for the poor editorial judgment exercised in running a comic that is so clearly inappropriate and hurtful,” the editorial said. “Understandably, the comic upset and offended members of the community who thought it unfairly depicted victims of horrible tragedy as savage and violent -- reducing starving people to a punch line.”

The cartoon was removed from the newspaper’s Web site.

The food fight cartoon is one of several by Woolard to spark controversy. The protesting students also cited another recent cartoon
depicting Thomas Jefferson's slave Sally Hemings sitting on a bed while Jefferson stands near her with a whip in his hand. The text read "Thomas, could we try role-play for a change?"

In 2006, the paper and the university administration received nearly 2,000 letters from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and individuals from around the country in response to two Woolard comics seen as anti-Christian, according to an article that ran in the Cavalier Daily on Sept. 11, 2006.

One, titled "Christ on a Cartesian Plane," depicted the crucifixion with a parabolic graph superimposed on the figure of Christ. In another, titled "A Nativity Ob-scene," the Virgin Mary and Joseph have a conversation about an "immaculately transmitted" rash.

Those cartoons were removed from the newspaper's Web site. In their places is this message from Woolard:

“Dear Readers,

The sole intent of my comic strip is to present situations that provoke thought and amusement. As this comic did not achieve that goal, I have requested that it be taken down from the Cavalier Daily website.

I apologize for the offense that this comic has produced.

Grant Woolard”

Some students have asked that Woolard be removed as graphics editor.

The Sept. 6 editorial described the newspaper’s policy on censorship, which instructs editors to ask themselves a series of questions: "First, does the author truthfully depict a verifiable historical or contemporary situation? If not, and the context of the work is creative, we ask two more questions. Does the author make a serious, intentional point, the censoring of which would constitute viewpoint discrimination? Also, does the author criticize or make light of a group of people for any reason other than their own opinions or actions?"

After publishing the cartoon, the editors decided the comic “clearly violates the third criterion,” the editorial said.

An article about the protest explained that all cartoons are reviewed by the graphics editor, the operations manager and the editor-in-chief before going to print.
Editor-in-chief Herb Ladley was quoted in the article as saying when he first saw the comic, his reaction "was that it would be controversial," but said he "didn't consider it in light of the current comic policy." (A note at the end of the story explains that Ladley did not edit the story since he was quoted in it.)

“Sometimes late at night, when our deadline is pending, editors make hasty decisions without considering all the consequences,” the editorial said.

The editorial apologizing for the cartoon chastizes students for the protest.

“On Tuesday evening, before dozens of students decided to occupy the offices of The Cavalier Daily in protest, we helped to plan a public forum in which members of the community could come and learn more about the paper's editorial process and how decisions are made,” the editorial said.

“An open forum, where the public can express their concerns and hear from the parties involved, is in this case the best way to incorporate the community into the discussion. Intimidation is not. Blocking the entrances and exits of The Cavalier Daily offices, whether in protest or not, erodes any hope of productive discussion.”

What do you think about the way The Cavalier Daily handled this situation? Have you faced similar challenges? Post a comment here. We’d also love to hear from Cavalier Daily staffers if they’d like to share more about the cartoon controversy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Inside Higher Ed did a piece on this today, too.